Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mineola Swingers Cases "Rife with Error"

Last week the 14th District Court of Appeals (Houston) released three opinions in the "Mineola Swingers" cases.  These cases involved three co-defendants who were convicted of child sexual abuse and organized crime for teaching children how to engage in sexual conduct and then taking the children to perform sexual acts publicly in front of a Swingers club.  Sick, I know.  So thought the trial court, because, as the 14th Court points out:
the trial court adopted ad hoc evidentiary rules that operated to assist the State in proving its case, while impeding [the defendant's] ability to defend himself.
Of the three cases released last week, Mayo v. State was modified and affirmed, while Kelly v. State and Pittman v. State were reversed and remanded.  Some of the pertinent reasons for each decision are contained below.

Mayo v. State -- Appellate decision hinged not on the evidence adduced at trial or the State's method of proving the case, but rather on a jury instruction and the a cumulation of sentences issue.  In giving a venue instruction regarding the sufficiency of proof, the trial court relied on previaling Texas caselaw rather than statute.  The CCA, however, held in 2003 that "Texas courts are forbidden from instructing the jury on any presumption or evidentiary sufficiency rule that does not have a statutory basis."  Brown v. State, 122 S.W.3d 794 (Tex. Crim. App. 2003).  The appellate court found this error to be harmless.  What the appellate court did not find harmless, however, was the trial court's ordering of appellant's convictions for child sexual abuse and organized crime to run consecutively.  Noting that "Texas Penal Code section 3.03 unambiguously provides that only offenses specifically enumerated in subsection (b) may be ordered to run consecutively" and "organized crime is not one of the enumerated offenses,"  the appellate court modified the judgment to reflect "that appellant's life sentence for engaging in organized criminal activity shall run concurrently with her two consecutive twenty-year sentences for sexual performance of a child."

Kelly v. State -- To summarize this case in a few lines, the appellate court stated:
Although the evidence is legally sufficient to support appellat's conviction, the record is rife with error.  Many of these errors did affect appellant's substantial rights.  Therefore we reverse and remand for a new trial.
Of appellant's 43 issues presented on appeal, here are some of the highlights for which the Court reversed the case:
  • The trial court denied the defendant the opportunity to present a meaningful defense by preventing him from pursuing the trial theory that the child victims' foster parents, who had recently been accused of child sexual abuse in CA, coached the victims to lie against the defendant in order to shift the blame from the foster parents.
  • The trial court improperly allowed the State to introduce evidence that the 2 co-defendants were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for their involvement in the sex sting.
  • The trial court allowed a mountain of hearsay statements of the outcry witness through an investigator who recounted the statements as fact even though he was not present for any of the statements.
  • The State's witness on "child grooming" was not an expert and should not have been allowed to testify as such.
These errors (and more) contributed to the Court's reversing and remanding the case for a new trial.  Perhaps next time around the trial court will simply conduct the trial within the confines of acceptable trial practice and evidentiary rules, because, as the Court noticed, "the evidence [was] legally sufficient to support appellant's conviction."  I'm sure the Court could have engaged in some mental gymnastics to uphold this conviction, but it decided to require a cleaner record from the trial court.  Either way, this decision signals small shift toward maintaining a legal and respectable justice system in Texas.

Pittman v. State -- The Court reversed and remanded due to the trial court's abuse of discretion in allowing the State to introduce numerous extraneous offenses (drug use, sexual acts with other children, etc.) which were highly prejudicial when appellant was charged with sexual abuse of only one child.  In reversing the conviction, the Court stated:
Had the State tried appellant only for the offense with which he was charged, aggravated sexual assault of a child, it might have convicted him of that offense. Unfortunately, in this case, the trial court permitted the State to try appellant for being a criminal generally, rather than for the offense for which he was indicted. In fact, he was tried for being the worst sort of criminal: a child predator who engages in an organized and ongoing scheme with other pedophiles to sexually abuse young children.
It appears the State has some work left to do in these cases.