Jersey City, New Jersey – New Jersey’s Rape Shield Law is intended to protect victims of sexual assault from character assassination during a trial. Defendants are precluded from introducing evidence of previous sexual conduct with person other than the defendant. The intent of the law is to prevent unscrupulous and unwarranted character assassination such as trying to demonstrate the victim’s promiscuity.
In State v. R.Y., decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court on May 6, 2020, a child told her mother that R.Y. touched her inappropriately. A child services caseworker spoke with the child who said it was a person named Darren who touched her inappropriately and no one else. At trial, the court prevented the caseworker from testifying about the child’s statement based on the Rape Shield Law. The Supreme Court concluded it was reversible error to exclude this statement because the statement was not for the purpose of displaying promiscuity, but rather to present evidence of a person, other than the defendant, who committed the criminal act.
Evaluating the evidence under the Rape Shield Law was only the first step of analysis necessary before admitting the evidence. The next step was to evaluate whether it was admissible as evidence of third party guilt. In order to admit such evidence, it must have a rational tendency to engender a reasonable doubt with respect to an essential feature of the State’s case. Because the child’s statement to a caseworker specifically naming a third-party as the offender, it clearly had the ability to engender such a reasonable doubt.
The Court also evaluated the admissibility of the child’s statement as a prior inconsistent statement. Where a person testifying in court has previously said something that contradicts the in-court testimony, that prior statement may be admitted to show the inconsistency. Here, because the child testified that R.Y. was the offender at trial, her prior statement that someone else was the offender was a prior inconsistent statement that was admissible, also.
This case did not establish any new law, but it is important because it clarified clearly the application of these evidentiary rules in such a situation. A person accused of such offenses is already at a huge disadvantage at trial because of the nature of the accusation and the reaction such charges evoke in jurors. But often these accusations are entirely unsupported by any evidence other than the statements of the accuser, so the ability to defend one’s self at trial by presenting prior inconsistent statements and evidence of other persons who may have committed the offense is an essential aspect of potential defenses.