Sex Offense Cases & Prior Convictions

Sep 3, 2013

A defendant who’s charged with committing a sex offense against a child may have his previous convictions used against him in court under legislation that’s being considered by the Virginia State Crime Commission. 

The bill’s opponents say that acknowledging prior convictions or negative character traits during a trial has the potential to prejudice a jury against a defendant.  Some lawmakers believe current state law does not strike the right balance to secure justice for victimized children.

Excluding evidence of prior convictions or a reputation is based on the premise that a defendant should be tried on the facts of what he’s currently accused of-- not what he’s done in the past.  But bill sponsor and Delegate Rob Bell said when the victims are children, it’s challenging for juries to discern who’s telling the truth—and they want to know about a defendant’s character.

“You have the argument that ‘the kid is a liar.’ And ‘would this be the kind of person who….?’  That’s the issue before them. And I think to the common person, the answer is not ‘yes,’ not ‘sure,’ but ‘you’re out of your mind—of course it is. That would be the single most important thing.’ The single most important thing in the entire world is the one thing that we tell the jurors they can’t hear.”

But a member of the public, Mary Devoy, disagreed.

“Justice is supposed to be blind. But when it comes to sex crimes, it seems we are willing to throw away all checks and balances put in place to prevent assumptions, personal opinions, or agendas from contaminating a fair system," she said.
The bill currently would not require admission of such evidence, but would allow the judge to weigh whether it’s prejudicial or relevant and should be admitted.