The Molineux Rule: The New York Court Of Appeals’ Latest Ruling
People v. Denson
New York Court of Appeals
Decided October 27, 2015
2015 NY Slip Op 07779
By: Criminal Appeals Lawyer Stephen Preziosi
The Molineux Rule And When Defendant’s Prior Criminal Acts Can Be Admitted At Trial
Whether the trial court erred in admitting evidence of defendant’s prior conviction of a sex crime committed?against a child, as relevant to his intent in the current offense.
The New York Court of Appeals?held that the trial court did not err in admitting evidence of defendant’s prior conviction.
The victim of the offense was a 10-year-old girl who lived with her mother in an apartment located above the hardware store where defendant worked. The evidence at trial established that defendant often exchanged greetings with the victim and her mother as they entered or exited the building. ?Defendant frequently approached the victim as she walked home from school, and he repeatedly offered to take her out for ice cream, or to take her ice skating or to the movies. The victim felt “bothered” by defendant’s conduct and rejected his requests. The victim estimated that defendant made offers to take her out between 30 and 40 times.
On September 11, 1998, the victim came home from school and?saw defendant exiting a door to the basement. The victim said “hello” to defendant. Defendant said, “Here’s the keys to my apartment,” and he began to take the chain holding his keys from around his neck. The victim refused to take the keys, and defendant asked her three times if she was sure. When she repeated her refusals, defendant told her to meet him downstairs later that day if she changed her mind and promised he would get her some ice cream. Later that day, she told her mother what had happened, and her mother contacted the police. A grand jury subsequently indicted defendant on charges of attempted kidnapping in the second degree (Penal Law 110.00, 135.20) and endangering the welfare of a child ( 260.10 ).
The People sought to introduce evidence of defendant’s 1978 sodomy conviction (see?former Penal Law 130.50), arising from his sexual abuse of his stepdaughter, as evidence of his intent with respect to the charge of attempted kidnapping in the second degree. ?Defendant’s estranged wife and her niece testified regarding defendant’s sexual abuse of his stepdaughter. Defendant’s estranged wife testified that defendant frequently took his stepdaughter on outings in which he would dress up in a “dress suit” with a fur “round rim hat,” and he would require his stepdaughter to dress up as well.
T]he familiar Molineux rule states that evidence of a defendant’s uncharged crimes or prior misconduct is not admissible if it cannot logically be connected to some specific material issue in the case, and tends only to demonstrate the defendant’s propensity to commit the crime charged” (People v Cass, 18 NY3d 553, 559 ). Where, however, “the proffered Molineux evidence is relevant to some material fact in the case, other than the defendant’s propensity to commit the crime charged, it is not to be excluded merely because it shows that the defendant had committed other crimes” (id. at 560). Although it is not an exhaustive list, evidence of a defendant’s prior bad acts may be admitted to prove the crime charged when the evidence tends to establish:
“(1) motive; (2) intent; (3) the absence of mistake or accident; (4) a common scheme or plan embracing the commission of two or more crimes so related to each other that proof of one tends to establish the others; and (5) the identity of the person charged with the commission of the [*4]crime on trial.
In assessing whether evidence of a defendant’s prior criminal acts should be admitted at trial, a trial court is required to engage in a two-step analysis. First, the trial court must determine whether the People have “identif[ied] some material issue, other than the defendant’s criminal propensity, to which the evidence is directly relevant” (Cass, 18 NY3d at 560). If the People have met that burden, the trial court must then “weigh the evidence’s probative value against its potential for undue prejudice to the defendant. ?the decision whether to admit evidence of defendant’s prior bad acts rests upon the trial court’s discretionary balancing of probative value and unfair prejudice. ?defendant’s expert testified that one could infer “the probability of what [defendant’s] motivation is and the probability of what his goals are” from the repetition of his behavior in the two offenses.
The court stated that it was aware of the potential for prejudice, but was “satisfied that, with careful limitations and adequate caution to the jury, some facts from the earlier case can be utilized to show a unique connection between the two offenses” and that expert testimony would help a jury “to understand what factors should be considered, or discounted, in assessing those facts and that connection.” Under the circumstances presented here, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion as a matter of law in admitting evidence of defendant’s prior conviction.