One accuser’s testimony is rarely enough to sway a jury’s opinion about guilt or innocence — unless the defendant stands accused of a sex crime. In many criminal trials across the country, including Utah, prosecutors manage to get convictions for serious criminal offenses — rape, sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault, — with no evidence other than the alleged victim’s testimony. How is this possible? No one wants to imagine that a rape accuser could lie and their compelling testimony in court is often enough to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. But lawyers know that lies do happen, and they shatter more lives than just the defendant’s.
The Importance of Circumstantial Evidence In Sex Cases
The legal definition of direct and circumstantial evidence can be found in the Utah Model Jury Instructions, Civil Instruction 120 (though we are talking about criminal law, the definition of direct and circumstantial evidence applies equally to both civil and criminal cases. Thus, we look to the civil jury instructions in this instance.) Civil Jury Instruction 120 states:
A fact may be proved by direct or circumstantial evidence. Circumstantial evidence consists of facts that allow someone to reasonably infer the truth of the facts to be proved. For example, if the fact to be proved is whether Johnny ate the cherry pie, and a witness testifies that she saw Johnny take a bite of the cherry pie, that is direct evidence of the fact. If the witness testifies that she saw Johnny with cherries smeared on his face and an empty pie plate in his hand, that is circumstantial evidence of the fact.
Circumstantial evidence thus requires that an inference be drawn from a set of direct evidence in order to reach the conclusion that another fact existed.
In our system, both direct and circumstantial evidence are valid proof. It is often assumed that direct evidence is more reliable than circumstantial evidence but that is not always the case. For instance, testimony from an eyewitness is considered direct evidence and there is a great deal of research showing that eyewitness testimony is particularly problematic. In order to make eyewitness testimony more reliable, attorneys will try to present circumstantial evidence to corroborate the witness’ story. Conversely, in order to discredit an eyewitness, circumstantial evidence can be used to show the testimony is improbable.
For instance, forensic evidence — blood samples, DNA, hair follicles, etc. – are considered circumstantial evidence of certain facts, namely that the person whose blood, DNA, or hair follicle was located at a particular place was in fact there at some point in time. In a case where the alleged victim claims to have been raped by the defendant, and the defendant denies having sexual relations, then blood, DNA, or a hair follicle retrieved during an examination of the alleged victim will be strong circumstantial evidence that the two had some kind of physical contact.
Many sex crimes cases lack circumstantial evidence and go to trial on nothing more than the testimony of the alleged victim. Such cases are very difficult to defend because irrespective of the rules of evidence, the jury is going to convict the defendant unless they are provided with some evidence explaining why the alleged victim would concoct such a story. This is particularly true when the alleged victim is a child. There will rarely be direct evidence of a person concocting a story and thus circumstantial evidence will be the primary means for discrediting the testimony.
Why Would Someone Lie About Such A Thing?
While scientific evidence is often very important in a sex case, it rarely is determinative because there are limits to what conclusions can be drawn from the scientific evidence. For instance, if DNA evidence exists showing that the defendant had sexual relations with the alleged victim, it shows only that the two had sexual relations. It tells us nothing about whether those relations were consensual. Such a case will therefore turn on the credibility of the alleged victim and often the defendant.
Similarly, if there is no physical evidence of sexual contact, the case still turns on the credibility of the alleged victim and often the defendant.
There are a million motivations for an alleged victim to make a sex crimes allegations. First and foremost is that they were in fact victimized. Other motivations or reasons that arise for making the allegation is that certain facts have been suggested to the alleged victim in a way that those facts become part of that person’s truth. This occurs frequently in the case of children who are highly suggestible. Specific interviewing techniques are used minimize the risk of suggestibility.
Other motivations include such things as money, vengeance, jealousy, to save a reputation, and even to deflect blame for some other wrong doing that the alleged victim is guilty of committing. It is important in defending these cases that the attorney have a clear understanding of the motivations of not only the alleged victim but of anyone likely to testify in the case. Irrespective of the burden of proof, if you argue that the defendant did not commit the crime, the jury will demand that you explain to them why a person would make such a horrendous allegation if it weren’t true. Failing to meet the jury’s expectation in this regard will nearly always result in a conviction.
Fighting Back Against False Allegations
Defending these cases is difficult because as the defense attorney, you must discredit the alleged victim’s testimony without offending the jury’s sensibilities. It takes years but a criminal defense attorney must to develop a certain sensitivity to the jury’s sensibilities. This is doubly true in cases involving children. A jury understands and expects a certain amount of contention between defense counsel and the alleged victim when that person is a grown adult. There are limits but still the jury will normally give the defense attorney some leeway in attacking the witness’ credibility as long as it is not perceived as a gratuitous attack with no basis in fact. Where the line is between gratuitous attack and legitimate questioning is different in every case and with every jury. It takes years of practice to know the right approach to handling the witness and to identify where those lines are drawn.
Sex crimes cases are not for part time trial lawyers. They are to be handled by someone that has handled many of these cases. They are not to be handled by the faint of heart, and they are not to be handled by the inexperienced. Sex cases are particularly difficult cases and many criminal defense attorneys refuse to handle them because they are difficult. There are more attorneys who will agree to handle them when they are simply not qualified to do so. Young attorneys often fall into this category because they have no idea how complicated the issues are going to be when they first agree to accept the case.
If you, or someone close to you, is facing sex crime charges, whether it is in Utah, Idaho or elsewhere, you need the services of our aggressive experienced trial lawyer to uphold your rights. This is the most important decision you’ll ever make — call us today for an instant consultation with one of our attorneys. We handle emergency visits and jailhouse calls around the clock. It’s never too early or too late to contact us.