May 15, 2013
Other-Acts Evidence

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

When Van Williams met a young man – we’ll refer to him as J.H. – at the Good Shepherd Baptist Church in East Cleveland, it seemed like a nice story. J.H. had no contact with his natural father and lived with his grandmother, so Williams became a mentor to him, and would often buy him gifts and pay him to do odd jobs at his home.

But in 2008, when J.H. was 14, he revealed at a counseling session at school that Williams had sexually abused him. The counselor notified the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services, and a grand jury subsequently indicted Williams on multiple charges.

Before the trial, the state moved to admit evidence that Williams had had a similar relationship with another teenage boy, A.B., a 16-year-old member of the high school swim team that Williams coached in 1997. In support of its motion, the state asserted Williams’s relationship with A.B. – which paralleled that with J.H. –indicated a course of conduct constituting a common plan, and, by reasonable inference, tended to prove Williams’s intent to achieve sexual gratification with teenage males.

Williams objected to the admission of A.B.’s testimony. He requested a hearing, but the court deferred it until after trial began.

During opening statements, Williams’s attorney told jurors that Williams had treated J.H. like a son but that J.H. had “betrayed” him and that the boy had “issues” – he had attempted suicide and liked pornography. He suggested that J.H. made up the accusation to get out of trouble.

Later, at a hearing on the state’s motion to admit A.B.’s testimony – without the jury present – A.B. described their sexual encounters from years ago. He stated that at the time of his relationship with Williams, his father wasn’t involved in his life and he trusted Williams. After transferring to another high school, A.B. disclosed the relationship to a tutor.

Over objection, the court permitted A.B. to testify at trial, cautioning the jury that A.B.’s evidence was not going to be received to prove Williams’s character “in order to show that he acted in conformity or accordance with that character.” The court also permitted a social worker, Shawana Cornell, to testify that Williams had admitted to her that he had been accused of sexual abuse about 12 years earlier but that the charge in that matter had been reduced to a misdemeanor assault.

The jury eventually found Williams guilty of multiple counts of rape, gross sexual imposition, kidnapping and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. He was sentenced to a 20-year prison term.

Williams appealed, challenging the admission of the other-acts testimony. In reviewing the case, the court of appeals noted that there “are only two situations in which other-acts evidence is admissible to show a defendant’s scheme or plan: (1) to show the background of the alleged crime or (2) to show identity.

Concluding that identity was not at issue, that the other acts with A.B. were remote and distinct occurrences, and that A.B.’s and Cornell’s testimony was unduly prejudicial, the court of appeals reversed the trial court.

When the case came before us – the Ohio Supreme Court – the state argued that two independent bases existed to admit the other acts evidence: Williams’s plan to gain sexual gratification with teenage males, and a specific plan to target vulnerable teenage boys and groom them for sexual activity.

Williams argued that evidence of his prior relationship with A.B. would be admissible only if it was introduced to prove identity or to establish the immediate background of the charged offense.

By a six-to-one vote, our court disagreed with Williams. The majority acknowledged that evidence that an accused committed a crime other than the one for which he is on trial is not admissible when its sole purpose is to show the accused’s propensity to commit crime or that he acted in conformity with bad character.

But the majority pointed out that the Rules of Evidence – which govern trial procedures – state that evidence of other crimes may be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, or a plan.

According to the majority, the Rules afford broad discretion to the trial judge regarding the admission of other-acts evidence. The Rules preclude other-acts evidence to prove the character of an accused to demonstrate that he conformed to that character, but the majority concluded that’s not what happened in this case.

The majority determined the evidence was not unduly prejudicial to Williams, because the trial court instructed the jury that the evidence couldn’t be considered to show that Williams had acted in conformity with a character trait.  Therefore, the majority reversed the court of appeals and reinstated the judgment of the trial court.

I cast the dissenting vote because after reviewing the record in this case, I found that the court of appeals got it right. It concluded that other-acts testimony against Williams had been offered for the express purpose of proving his bad character in order to demonstrate that his conduct with regard to J.H. was in conformity with his prior acts.

The court of appeals stated: “There is no doubt that A.B.’s other-acts testimony” coupled with Shawana Cornell’s “statements unfairly prejudiced Williams. Because no physical evidence of sexual abuse was found, the case essentially hinged on the credibility of the witnesses. In cases such as these, there is a real risk that a jury will believe that if Williams did it once, he must have done it again. That is the danger cautioned of and protected against by the” Rules of Evidence.

The court of appeals thus concluded that the trial court erred in finding that A.B.’s testimony provided proof enough to outweigh any prejudicial effect.

The majority opinion only cursorily addressed whether the other-acts testimony unfairly prejudiced Williams, even though that’s an essential part of an other-acts analysis.

I found a clear violation of the Rules of Evidence, and would have therefore affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is State v. Williams, 134 Ohio St.3d 521, 2012-Ohio-5695. Case No. 2011-2094. Decided December 6, 2012. Majority opinion written by Justice Terrence O'Donnell.