Supreme Judicial Court (January 19, 2006)
Testimony regarding the overly trusting nature of a rape victim with mental disabilities, and examples of situations where the victim had been previously taken advantage of by others, was not improper character evidence because it was relevant to the principal issue of consent.
A nineteen-year-old mentally disabled victim accompanied an acquaintance, who she trusted, to the defendant's room at a boarding house. The victim had never met the defendant. Soon after their arrival, the defendant raped the victim while the acquaintance sat and watched television in the room. The victim immediately left and walked to the police station to report the incident.
The defendant was convicted of rape. At trial, the victim's mother testified about her daughter's tendency to naively trust those whom she did not know, and provided graphic examples of how the victim had been mistreated and abused by others in the past. The defendant appealed his conviction claiming such testimony was inadmissible character evidence, and even if admissible for some purpose, it could only have been admitted in the form of reputation evidence and not through evidence of the mother's personal opinion. In addition, the defendant argued that testimony regarding specific prior instances illustrating the victim's overly trusting nature were unduly prejudicial because it impermissibly suggested the victim had a propensity to be victimized.
The Commonwealth argued the testimony was not character evidence, but rather proof of the victim's ongoing mental and emotional incapacity resulting from problems related to brain functioning that began at an early age. The Commonwealth also argued that the evidence was relevant to show the reason why the victim went to the defendant's room.
The SJC held that the mother's testimony "described a specific manifestation, over trusting, as an unfortunate but ever present and inescapable part" of the victim's disorder. In overturning the Appeals Court, the SJC held it was not a character trait, but rather, a permanent condition that was no more character evidence than the description of the victim as having limited intellectual capacity; evidence which was relevant to the central issue of consent. The court acknowledged that the evidence fell close to the line between inadmissible evidence of character and admissible evidence of the manifestations of a mental disorder because it could evoke sympathy for the victim. However, the court relied on the trial judge's discretion in determining the prejudicial nature of the evidence did not substantially outweigh its probative value.