If a jury is considering whether a stepfather sexually molested his stepchild, should it be allowed to consider evidence that he beat her and other stepchildren of his? That question was at the crux of a Washington Supreme Court decision handed down this morning.
A Benton County trial court convicted Timothy Scott Fisher of four counts of molesting his then 12-year-old stepdaughter, Melanie Weston. The incidents allegedly occurred in 1997, but Weston didn't report the incidents until 2003, attributing her delay to fear for her safety. Fisher, she said, regularly beat her and her siblings. (Her siblings and mother said the same.) Moreover, Fisher was reported to CPS for allegedly abusing his current stepchildren.
Prosecutors wanted to introduce Fisher's non-sexual abuses as evidence. Usually, you can't do that--whether a defendant committed other crimes has no bearing on whether he committed the one he's bring tried for, and testimony about those other crimes is likely to prejudice the jury. But the court admitted the evidence so it could be used if Fisher challenged Weston's decision to wait six years before reporting the sexual abuse.
The defense never challenged Weston's delay, but prosecutors mentioned the non-sexual abuse in both the opening and closing arguments. Their argument, basically, was that you have a chance to put away a guy who is a menace. Said the prosecutor in the closing:
The truth of this case is that the system has failed. The system has failed Tyler. The system has failed Melanie. The system has failed Brett. The system has failed Brittany. And the system has failed Ashland and Shelby [Fisher's current stepchildren]. It's failed all of them sitting out there. And there is only one way that we can make sure that the system stops failing and that's to do the job that you all have been charged with and that I know you'll do.
As a result, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed Fisher's convictions. (Barbara Madsen wrote her own separate concurrence.) The past abuse could be used only if the defense challenged Weston's delay in reporting, they said, and the current abuse couldn't be introduced at all. They sent the case back to be tried all over again.