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Criminal Nuggets

Oct 27, 2014

Prior bad acts evidence, also called other crimes evidence, is when the State is allowed to tell the jury in a criminal trial about your prior criminal history. Podcast Episode 023 of the Criminal Nuggets Podcast involves prior bad acts that were admitted in a sex case.  Usually, the law prevents this from happening.

However, there are excetions. And in Illinois, being acquitted of the prior bad acts does not affect the admissibility of the prior bad acts in any subsequent trial for a different crime. See People v. Baldwin, 2014 IL App (1st) 121725 (08/15/2014). 

What is Prior Bad Acts Evidence?

Just to be clear, lets all get on the same page.

Immagine a defendant has committed two sex crimes. Defendant did the same thing to two different victims. Essentially, this imaginary defendant lured and threatened his victims into his car where he sexually assaulted them. He did this twice, on two different occasions, with two different victims.

Let's call the first victim, Victim A. Let's call the second victim, Victim B.

Now lets pretend that the State chooses to prosecute and proceed to trial first on the charges involving Victim A.

Generally, the law does not allow the prosecution to allow the prosecution to mention the first crime involving Victim A in the trial involving Victim B and vice versa. There are exceptions, but that’s another article.

However, in sex cases the general prohibition against admitting prior bad acts evidence or other crimes evidence is relaxed.  Any prior sex crimes a defendant may have committed are likely to be revealed to a jury deliberating on a new charge if the new charge is also a new sex crime.

In fact, the Illinois Compiled Statutes Criminal Code says that any prior sex offense may admitted against a person currently charged with a sex case “(if that evidence is otherwise admissible under the rules of evidence) and may be considered for its bearing on any matter to which it is relevant.” See 725 ILCS 5/115-7.3(b).

These words, “for its bearing on any matter to which it is relevant” have been interrupted to include the Defendant’s propensity to commit sex crimes. This means the jury is allowed to consider the Defendant’s:

  • Character
  • Nature, and
  • Tendency 

to commit sex crimes when the evaluate and consider the other crimes evidence in the case that they are deciding. See People v. Donoho, 204 Ill.2d 159, 176, 788 N.E.2d 707, 718 (Ill. 2003).

Now, the prior bad acts evidence in sex cases are not automatically admissible in a subsequent trial. The law still requires the judge to balance and weight certain factors. Before committing other crimes evidence, the following must happen:

“In weighing the probative value of the evidence against undue prejudice to the defendant, the court may consider:

(1) the proximity in time to the charged or predicate offense;

(2) the degree of factual similarity to the charged or predicate offense; or

(3) other relevant facts and circumstances.”

725 ILCS 5/115-7.3(c). 

Lets get back to our example. What happens, if Defendant is acquitted and found not guilty of committing the crime against Victim A. That is, What happens if Defendant wins his first trial? Is the State still allowed to admit evidence of the crime involving Victim A in Defendant’s second trial involving Victim B? 

In Illinois, the case of People v. Baldwin, explained that an acquittal of a prior crime has no bearing on the admissibility of that other crime in a subsequent trial involving a different crime.

This may not sound or feel right. We can resolve the apparent paradox by keeping in mind the different legal standards and burdens of proof that are involved in the case. 

In the first trial involving Victim A, the state would have had Victim A testify against Defendant to try to find him guilty of committing the crime against Victim A. The burden of proof involved would have been the traditions burden of proof in all criminal cases. This is the highest burden that exists in the law.

So, when we say that the Defendant was acquitted of the crime against Victim A. We mean that the jury in his trial for the crime involving Victim A found him not guilty of that crime.

When the State moves on to the second trial, the goal is to find him guilty the crime against Victim B. Obviously, Victim B would have to testify in the second trial. Section 115-7.3 says that Victim A can also testify in the second trial. This time, however, Victim A’s testimony is only considered other crimes evidence admitted to help prove that Defendant committed the crime against Victim B. To win the second trial the State has to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Victim B was traumatized. 

The burden of proof required to allow Victim A to testify this second time is the same burden of proof that all other evidence is held to. This time, since the state is not trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant committed a crime against Victim A, the state only has to show by “more than a mere suspicion” that the crime against Victim A was committed. See People v. Thingvold, 145 Ill. 2d 441, 456 (1991).

 With respect to the testimony that Victim A will provide, it is important to note that the burden of proof of that testimony that gone from high to low. Remember this, will help you understand why the State is allowed to have Victim A testify in the trial for the crime against Victim B, even though the State lost the trial for the crime against Victim A.

If a high jumper sets the bar on a first jump higher than the world’s record and misses the jump, we really don’t know what will happen if the jumper lower’s the bar and tries again. Missing on a really high jump, does not mean the jumper is going to miss on a second jump if the bar is substantially lowered.

Likewise, just because the State failed to prove the crime against Victim A when they had to it with proof beyond a reasonable doubt, does not mean the state cannot establish by a lower evidentiary standard that the crime against A happened. The prosecution is going from a higher burden to a lower burden of proof. 

Thinking of this high jumper will help us make sense of this quote from the Supreme Court:

“[T]he State is not precluded from ‘relitigating an issue when it is presented in a subsequent action governed by a lower standard of proof.’ ” Jackson, 149 Ill. 2d at 550 (quoting Dowling v. United States, 493 U.S. 342, 349 (1990).