One of the more difficult things for victims in criminal litigation to understand is that trials are not opportunities to tell the jury about everything bad that a defendant has ever done. Trials must focus on proving the current crime or bad act at issue, and evidence is limited to those facts or opinions that are relevant to that crime. The State cannot meet the burden of proof by simply showing that the defendant is an all-around shady character. Instead, the specific elements of the crime must be shown. In order to prevent trials from becoming mudslinging contests, the West Virginia rules of evidence prevent the state from providing evidence of a defendant’s “prior bad acts” unless they can show that such bad acts are relevant to the current criminal case, and the probative value of such evidence outweighs any prejudicial impact. A recent case before the West Virginia Supreme Court shows that, in some instances, when prior bad acts are particularly relevant, they may be allowed even if they are from a decade or longe, before the crime was committed.
In State v. Gary A., the Defendant was charged with sexual assault of his seven-year-old niece. While spending the night at her uncle’s with her two brothers, the Defendant inappropriately touched his niece and forced her to inappropriately touch him. He was charged and convicted of sexual assault. At trial, the niece testified, along with her mother and her brother, who were involved in the reporting of the crime. Additionally, the State of West Virginia called two of the Defendant’s older relatives to testify. They both reported that they had been assaulted in a manner similar to the Defendant’s assault of his niece, when they were younger. After the trial, the Defendant was sentenced to 30 to 90 years in prison. He immediately appealed.