Marc KovacThe Columbus Dispatch
In separate decisions Tuesday, state’s high court sought to clarify when prosecutors can introduce evidence of past crimes during crim trials on new charges.
In one case, the Ohio Supreme Court sided with Cleveland man convicted of rape after evidence of a prior and unrelated assault was introduced during his jury trial.
In the other, justices sided with prosecutors in a Hamilton County case involving a man convicted of molesting a young girl, after evidence was presented of earlier assault allegations.
Both decisions were unanimous, with justices hoping “to help clear up some of the confusion that exists regarding the use of other-acts evidence,” Justice R. Patrick DeWine wrote. “Thus, we endeavor to provide trial courts with a road map for analyzing the admission of other-acts evidence and guidance as to appropriate instructions for the jury when such evidence is admitted.”
The first case involved, Mitchell Hartman, 40, who was convicted of rape following an Oct. 2015 incident involving a woman in a hotel room following an evening of drinking.
The woman, identified in court documents by the initials “E.W.,” said Hartman entered the room and initiated the unwanted sexual activity. Hartman argued that the activity was consensual, according to court documents.
During the resulting jury trial, prosecutors called Hartman’s former stepdaughter to testify about an earlier assault involving the defendant entering her bedroom at night.
The trial court allowed the evidence, and the jury returned guilty verdicts to two rape counts against Hartman but not-guilty verdicts on additional counts of burglary and kidnapping. The jury also designed Hartman as a sexually violent predator, according to documents. He’s currently serving a sentence of 10 years to life.
But the Eight District Court of Appeals reversed the convictions, saying the stepdaughter’s testimony should not have been admitted.
The facts of that case “had nothing to do with any fact in evidence or any fact that was being contested before… Mr. Hartman’s trial,” Joseph Patituce, Hartman’s attorney, said during oral arguments earlier this year. “The prejudicial effect is overwhelming. Once the jury hears it, this case is over, and that’s exactly what happened here.”
The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the appeals court ruling, stating that, while evidence of other criminal acts can be admitted in some cases, the admission was not proper in Hartman’s case.
“Here, Hartman’s molestation of his stepdaughter four years prior was not linked to any overarching plan to commit rape against E.W.,” DeWine wrote. “The incidents are wholly distinct … the other-acts evidence in this case contains few similarities to the crimes charged. Thus, the evidence was not relevant to show a common scheme or plan.”
The other ruling Tuesday involved Michael Smith, 65, who was charged following a January 2016 incident involving his young granddaughter.
During his trial, testimony was allowed describing comparable crimes allegedly committed by Smith against his daughters decades earlier, with prosecutors arguing that “the conduct was similar in both situations,” according to documents. “Smith had shown scenes of oral sex to minors and had abused a minor who was asleep in the same bed as him.”
He was charged in 1986 as a result but acquitted. His defense counsel during the new trial argued “that presenting evidence of crimes for which Smith had been acquitted 30 years before would force Smith to defend himself against those charges a second time, in addition to defending against the present allegations.”
Smith was convicted of gross sexual imposition and disseminating matter harmful to juveniles in the newer case, however, and is serving a 9-year sentence.
An appeals court upheld the conviction, and justices agreed in their ruling Tuesday.
DeWine wrote, “The detailed facts of Smith’s molestation … his relationship to the victims, the manner in which he touched them, the location and environment in which the abuse occurred, and his priming of the children by showing them pornography depicting oral sex — were so similar as to ‘strongly suggest that an innocent explanation is implausible.’ …
“Because Smith placed his intent at issue by claiming that his actions were accidental and not done with sexual intent, the evidence was properly admissible to show absence of mistake — or to put it another way, that he committed the acts not accidentally, but with the intent of sexual gratification.”
Justice Michael P. Donnelly praised the decisions Tuesday, saying in a statement that the ruling “will surely provide guidance and clarity to our trial and appellate courts on the proper introduction of other acts evidence in a criminal trial. The requirement that criminal charges against the accused be proven beyond a reasonable doubt along with the presumption of innocence are cornerstones of our criminal justice system.”