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Md. appeals court upholds prior-conviction evidence in sexual abuse case

“It’s important for jurors to have facts that are necessary to understand the context of the allegations,” Lisae C. Jordan, executive director and counsel at the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Thursday. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The details of a prior sexual-assault conviction are admissible at trial only if they are sufficiently similar to the crime for which the defendant stands accused and would not unfairly prejudice the jury, Maryland’s second-highest court has ruled in interpreting a recently enacted law to aid sexual offense prosecutions.

In its reported decision, the Court of Special Appeals said judges must determine before trial whether the similarity outweighs the prejudice.

If so, judges must permit more than a “bare-bones” description of the prior conviction to be introduced to enable jurors to weigh the details’ significance to the state’s case without resorting to their imaginations, the appellate court stated in its 3-0 ruling.

“Some degree of detail (is) … necessary to establish a factual basis on which the jury could compare and contrast the current allegations with the prior sexually assaultive behavior,” Judge Dan Friedman wrote for the court.

“Moreover, were we to omit the potentially prejudicial details that establish the relevance of prior sexually assaultive behavior, we might, in fact invite the jury to assume the worst,” Friedman added. “Without details, jurors would be left to speculate as to the nature and circumstances of the offense and could draw all manner of conclusions.”

The appellate court said the 2018 law, which permits prior bad acts evidence in sexual-assault cases, marked a departure from the general evidentiary rule that a defendant’s prior conviction is irrelevant to the current crime charged.

Advocates for sexual-assault victims pressed for the law, saying predators’ propensity for repeating prior behavior makes the earlier bad acts highly relevant evidence in their current trial.

“It’s important for jurors to have facts that are necessary to understand the context of the allegations,” Lisae C. Jordan, executive director and counsel at the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Thursday.

The Court of Special Appeals, in interpreting the law, said last month that trial judges must balance the prior-act evidence against its potential to unfairly sway the jury.

“Courts must consider whether and how similar the two instances of sexually assaultive behavior actually are when determining whether ‘the probative value of the evidence is not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice,’” Friedman wrote, quoting from the law, the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article § 10-923.

“The more similar the prior sexually assaultive behavior is to the charged offense, the more probative of propensity it is, and the less unfairly prejudicial,” Friedman added. “Conversely, the more dissimilar the prior sexually assaultive behavior is to the charged offense, the less probative of propensity it is, and the more unfairly prejudicial.”

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in upholding John Woodlin’s conviction for having sexually abused an 11-year-old child in 2019, a verdict reached with evidence from his 2010 guilty plea to third-degree sexual assault of a man.

According to prosecutors at his 2019 trial, Woodlin had used his fingers and tongue to touch the child’s buttocks. The prosecution, with a Wicomico County Circuit Court judge’s approval, introduced at trial Woodlin’s guilty plea for having inserted a broom handle and vacuum hose into an unconscious man’s rectum.

Woodlin’s attorney argued on appeal that the 2010 conviction should not have been admitted into evidence at trial because an assault with foreign objects is so dissimilar from abuse with fingers and a tongue as to be irrelevant and its introduction unfairly inflammatory to the jury.

The state countered that the crimes were similar in that both victims were vulnerable males and had been assaulted in the same general area.

Noting the competing arguments, the Court of Special Appeals deferred to the judge’s decision to admit the evidence as not being “beyond the fringe of what we deem minimally acceptable” at trial.

“This is not to suggest, of course, that any other sexually assaultive behavior is probative of a defendant’s propensity to commit any other sexual assault,” Friedman wrote. “There may indeed be cases where offenses are so dissimilar that any probative value would be substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.”

Woodlin’s appellate attorney, Claudia A. Cortese, declined to comment Thursday on the ruling besides saying she and her client will seek review by the Court of Appeals.

Cortese is an assistant Maryland public defender.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the Court of Special Appeals decision.

Friedman was joined in the opinion by Judges Melanie Shaw and Alan M. Wilner, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in John Matthew Woodlin v. State of Maryland, No. 107, September Term 2021.