During a criminal trial in West Virginia, both the prosecution and the defense are allowed to present evidence to support their theories of guilt and innocence, respectively. But under the West Virginia Rules of Evidence, not all information or arguments are admissible in court. For instance, in many circumstances, parties cannot present evidence of the other party’s character that is meant simply to disparage or embarrass the party in court. In recent years, many states, including West Virginia, have also adopted rules preventing defendants from introducing evidence of a victim’s sexual behaviors in sexual violence or sexual assault cases, except in very limited circumstances. This rule is meant to help prevent sexual assault victims from being harassed through a recounting of all of their prior sexual relationships and interactions. A recent case before the Supreme Court of Appeals for West Virginia looks at the contours of Rule 412 and when it can, and cannot, be used to exclude evidence.
In West Virginia v. Varlas, Mr. Varlas was charged with sexually assaulting a victim, N.S., during a get-together at his house. N.S. told her boyfriend at the time about the assault but did not report it immediately to police. Instead, she went home and went to bed. That evening, her boyfriend repeatedly texted her in a series of text exchanges, urging her to report the sexual assault to the police and insinuating that if she did not report the assault, the sexual encounter must have been consensual. He further suggested that if it were consensual, he would break up with her. The next day, N.S. reported the assault.
At trial, Mr. Varlas sought to introduce evidence of the text message exchanges to show why N.S. may have been motivated to report the encounter as an assault. He claimed that it had been consensual. Since the text messages referred to N.S. in derogatory terms, such as “whore,” the judge denied their admission. He based his denial on Rule 412, which prevents the introduction of evidence of a victim’s sexual predispositions or sexual behaviors. According to the trial judge, these references to N.S. as promiscuous were the type of evidence that Rule 412 excluded. Mr. Varlas was convicted and appealed.
On appeal, the Supreme Court noted that while Rule 412 precludes the introduction of evidence of a victim’s sexual encounters, it explicitly allows for the introduction of evidence related to prior encounters between the victim and the specific perpetrator at issue in the criminal case. Here, since the texts related not to N.S.’ encounters with other individuals, but her encounters with Mr. Varlas, the Supreme Court held that they should have been admitted as evidence when Mr. Varlas sought to do so. The Supreme Court thus found that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding them. Even more importantly, it also found that the text messages were of such value that denying their admission was prejudicial to Mr. Varlas and warranted a new trial.
This case is a good reminder that while evidentiary issues may seem small at the time of trial, a wrong decision by a judge can be an excellent basis for an appeal. If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime, and evidence was wrongly excluded at trial, the West Virginia criminal appeals lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Our firm has been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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