New trial ordered in sexual abuse case due to lack of physical evidence and cumulative effect of trial errors

The New Jersey Appellate Division ruled in November that a Monmouth County man sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting his daughter was entitled to a new trial. Although no single error standing alone warranted this reversal, the court was satisfied that a new trial was called for based on the lack of substantial physical evidence and the cumulative prejudicial impact of several trial errors. State v. M.M., 2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2474, No. A-2747-09T1 (N.J. App. Div. Nov. 8, 2012).


The first evidentiary ruling challenged by the defendant involved hearsay statements made by the daughter’s biology teacher and vice principal. Generally speaking, the rule against hearsay prohibits witnesses from testifying about statements made by other people, as such testimony is often unreliable or unverifiable. An important exception, however, is when the hearsay statement is offered to show the effect of the statement on the listener, not as proof that the statement was true. The prosecution invoked this exception to introduce testimony from the vice principal that the defendant’s daughter told him that she did not want to go home, with the prosecution claiming that the statement was not offered to prove whether she wanted to go home or not, but rather to show that the conversation occurred and the effect it had on the vice principal. Similarly, the prosecution argued that the biology teacher’s testimony regarding a conversation she overheard between the daughter and another girl was offered to show its effect on the teacher, namely concern, and not to prove that what the daughter told the other girl was true. Even if these statements qualified for the hearsay exception, the court agreed with the defendant that they were inadmissible because they were not relevant to any material fact in the trial.


The court also found that the prosecutor erred by stating during summation that the daughter “was not lying” and by telling the jury that all of the other witnesses believed her. While finding it unlikely that these comments, by themselves, created any significant prejudice against the defendant, the court still emphasized that it was inappropriate for a prosecutor to vouch for witnesses, attempt to bolster their credibility, or express personal beliefs as to the truthfulness of their testimony.


The defendant also contended that it was inherently prejudicial to use a screen to shield his daughter from view during her testimony, although the prosecution claimed that using a screen was an appropriate way to balance the defendant’s right to a neutral and public trial against the need to protect his daughter from undergoing psychological and emotional trauma during her testimony. The court accepted that screening might be appropriate in certain cases, but found that it was inappropriate in this case because there was no evidence that the daughter would have been unable to testify in open court, particularly in light of the fact that the screen shielded her only from spectators and not from the defendant or the jury.


Considering the effect of these errors together, along with the lack of direct evidence, the court concluded that a new trial was necessary. As the court explained, the combined impact of allowing irrelevant hearsay, inappropriate vouching, and unnecessary screening “was clearly capable of producing an unjust result.”


Trial errors like these can be especially damaging in cases involving child sexual abuse and other highly stigmatized crimes, but a skilled criminal defense attorney can raise objections and prevent prosecutors from introducing irrelevant and prejudicial evidence to the jury. If you’ve been accused of a sex crime and want to ensure that you’re represented by an experienced and aggressive defense lawyer, contact me, Anthony N. Palumbo, at 908-337-7353 to arrange a free and confidential consultation. I have more than 35 years of experience defending clients against sexual abuse charges and I know the best strategies and tactics to protect defendants and get the best results possible.