Rape convictions overturned based on improperly admitted evidence

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled last week that when evidence of other bad acts is improperly admitted at trial an appeals court must evaluate both the impact that the evidence had on the outcome of the case, and the strength of the remaining evidence in determining whether to uphold a conviction. The case before the court involved defendant Carl Morris who was convicted on two counts of raping his minor stepdaughter in 2009. At trial, in addition to testimony by the stepdaughter (S.K.), the court admitted testimony from her sister that Morris had made advances on the sister as well, and testimony from S.K.'s mother that Morris would kick the family dog if the mother refused his sexual advances.

Morris was convicted and appealed to the Ninth District Court of Appeals, which found that this evidence was not properly admitted under Ohio Evid. R. 404(B) as it could not be admitted to prove "motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident." The state appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which overturned the decision of the Ninth District, holding that the appellate court should have applied an abuse of discretion standard instead of reviewing the evidence de novo. On remand the Ninth District again reversed Morris' conviction, finding that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the evidence and that the court could only find that the evidence admitted was harmless if it could do so beyond a reasonable doubt. The state appealed again to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The Court examined the language of Ohio Crim. R. 52(A) (the harmless error rule) and found that when evidence is improperly admitted, a court must determine whether the evidence impacted a substantial right of the defendant. The Court held, "And so the real issue when Evid.R. 404(B) evidence is improperly admitted at trial is whether a defendant has suffered any prejudice as a result. If  not, the error may be disregarded as harmless error." Justice Lanzinger, writing for the majority, laid out a three factor analysis for cases where this type of evidence is improperly admitted:

"First, there must be prejudice to the defendant as a result of the admission of the improper evidence at trial... Second, an appellate court must declare a belief that the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt... Third, in determining whether a new trial is required or the error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, the court must excise the improper evidence from the record and then look to the remaining evidence."

The Court deferred to the opinion of the Ninth District, which found that the erroneously admitted evidence was inflammatory and the remainder of the case was weak, and affirmed the decision to vacate the conviction and order a new trial.

Justices O'Connor, Pfeifer and O'Neill concurred with the majority. Justice Kennedy penned a dissent, joined by Justice French. Justice O'Donnell also presented a dissenting opinion in the case.

For more information about the case see this article from Court News Ohio and the Ohio Supreme Court docket for the case.