A sexual misconduct conviction was thrown out by the 2d District Court of Appeal recently because the accused man did not receive a fair trial. The man’s appellate counsel argued successfully that the trial court should not have allowed a police officer and the alleged victim’s teacher to testify about the girl’s credibility, and it should not have allowed the prosecution to play a movie clip that would tend to create improper prejudice in the minds of the jurors.
Henry Keith Cavaliere was on trial for sexual misconduct with an underage girl. The alleged crime came to light when the girl disclosed the molestation to a friend after the two watched a movie about an online sexual predator. The girl subsequently told her teacher about the contact, and later a police officer interviewed her about the incident.
At trial, the state called both the teacher and the officer to testify about their interactions with the girl. The police detective testified that he was trained in kinesics, which is the interpretation of body movements, facial gestures, and other nonverbal behavior. The detective testified that, based upon his dealings with the girl and his training in kinesics, the girl was being truthful when she told her story regarding the sexual misconduct. The girl’s teacher’s testimony about the girl’s behavior also tended to bolster the girl’s credibility.
At trial, the state also showed a clip lasting several minutes in length of the movie the girl had watched with her friend. In the segment that the jury viewed, a girl encountered an older man via the internet. The man made sexual advances toward the girl and, although not shown in the clip, the clip’s context clearly appeared to portray that the man had non-consensual sexual contact with the girl.
Cavaliere was convicted, but the 2d District Court of Appeal ruled in his favor on appeal. Cavaliere’s trial suffered from several fatal flaws. First, the trial court allowed the state to bolster the alleged victim’s testimony improperly. In cases such as Cavaliere’s, when the outcome turns largely upon the jury’s assessment of whether or not the alleged victim was telling the truth, the sort of bolstering that the teacher’s and detective’s testimony constituted was improperly admitted and that error was sufficiently harmful to require that Cavaliere receive a new trial. The court explained that part of the jury’s task was deciding the credibility of witnesses. When the teacher and police officer vouched for the girl’s truthfulness, that task was taken away from the jury.
Although the admission of the improper bolstering testimony alone would have been enough to throw out the conviction and order a new trial, the appeals court also discussed the movie clip evidence. While the movie clip was relevant, since the movie was the spark for the girl’s coming forward, introducing the clip was unnecessary, since the state could have simply obtained testimony from the girl that she watched the film and that it inspired her to speak up. Since the clip depicted a “dissimilar predatory sexual battery” of a young girl, in order to prove a non-central aspect of the case, its probative value was very low and the chances of improperly prejudicing the jury were very high, and the trial court should not have allowed it into evidence.
Jurors are human, and sometimes their emotions can be stoked by the evidence presented to them. That’s why the law bars evidence more likely to prejudice the jury than to establish something of probative value in the case. The difference between conviction and acquittal can often be whether or not your trial consists only of proper evidence against you.