The Utah Supreme Court Thursday amended a controversial rule of evidence to once again permit "relevant" testimony about a defendant's prior criminal conduct.
The change essentially erases a set of stricter standards the court imposed on "prior crimes evidence" when it reversed the conviction of accused child molester Michael Doporto in 1997.Doporto was found guilty in 1993 of sodomizing the 7-year-old daughter of a friend. At his trial, the judge allowed testimony from two of six other girls who said they had also been molested by Doporto.
When it reversed Doporto's conviction, the high court said evidence of prior criminal conduct was inadmissible unless it was necessary, involved a material issue in the crime charged, and it's probative value outweighed the prejudicial effect.
The opinion caused concern among prosecutors, who argued the new standard made it all but impossible to introduce prior crimes evidence, especially in child sexual abuse cases where such evidence is often critical.
A study by University of Utah law professor Paul G. Cassell last month further fueled the debate by revealing that the Doporto standard was one of the strictest in the nation.
Responding to those concerns, Rep. David L. Gladwell, R-Ogden, introduced a bill to restore the rules of evidence to the pre-Doporto standard and specifically permit prior crimes evidence in child sexual abuse cases.
But the Supreme Court on Thursday pre-empted the Legislature with an order essentially wiping out the higher standards it had imposed in the Doporto ruling.
The change adds one sentence to Rule of Evidence 404, which governs the use of so-called character evidence in criminal trials. The rule basically states that evidence relating to defendant's character is not admissible to prove whether he or she committed the crime.
However, one section of the rule permits such evidence as proof of "motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity or absence of mistake or accident."
To that provision, the Supreme Court added, "In other words, evidence offered under this rule is admissible if it is relevant for a non-character purpose" and meets the requirements of other rules of evidence.
The change was adopted on a 4-1 vote of the court, with Justice I. Daniel Stewart, who wrote the Doporto opinion, dissenting.
Although the one sentence amendments appear to simply restate the rule, the advisory committee noted in its recommendation that it effectively restores "the traditional application of Rule 404 prior to Doporto."
Gladwell agreed and said it had rendered the part of his bill dealing with prior crimes evidence unnecessary. However, he said the rule change didn't completely resolve his concerns about the introduction of such evidence in child sexual abuse cases, which were also addressed in HJR1.
Still, Gladwell said he will withdraw the bill and refer the remaining issues to the advisory committee. While the Legislature has the authority to amend rules adopted by the Supreme Court, Gladwell, a former prosecutor, said he prefers leaving it to the court.