January 16th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its decision in State v. Prine (No. 93,345), a revolting case involving child abuse. The Court ruled 6-1, in an opinion by Justice Beier, that evidence of prior criminal conduct may only be admitted to prove that the defendant had a tendency to commit such acts as he was charged with where the prior criminal activity and the present charges are “so strikingly similar in pattern or so distinct in method of operation to the current allegations as to be a signature.” As a result the court overturned John Prine’s conviction and 33 year sentence for the rape and aggravated criminal sodomy of a six year old girl, and remanded the case for a retrial. Chief Justice McFarland dissented, criticizing the rule employed by the court as created by erroneous interpretation of precedent. Justices Davis and Johnson did not take part in the case, their roles were filled by Court of Appeals judges McAnany and Larson.
Considering the subject of this case reader discretion is advised. While the summary produced below has been sanitized somewhat it still contains some graphic language.
In 2003, six year old A.M.C. reported to her grandmother that Prine, the best friend of her father, had abused her while he was babysitting. Prine had “touched her between her legs with his fingers, his tongue, and his tummy” on multiple occasions. A social worker who interviewed A.M.C. had also worked with Prine’s 9 year old daughter S.M. who reported that Prine had molested her in a similar manner when she was 4 or 5. Prine was charged with three counts relating to A.M.C. and one relating to S.M. which was dismissed since the State could show no evidence that it fell within the statute of limitations.
At trial, the State was permitted to admit evidence from S.M. and J.J.S. (Prine’s half-sister) who reported that when she was 4 or 5 and Prine was 17, he had molested her. The State’s argument for inclusion of the evidence was that the acts in all three cases had similar patterns, since each involved a girl about 5- or 6-years-old and simulation of a sex act without penetration by the penis; two of the cases involved oral sodomy and digital penetration.
In Prine’s appeal, he argued that the evidence of past criminal acts should not have been admitted. The State argued that it was valid since it helped to prove intent, absence of mistake and plan (i.e. that Prine’s previous actions can prove that he had a modus operandi for the one charged). A divided Court of Appeals ruled against Prine. The Supreme Court found for him. Its holdings on intent and absence of mistake are straightforward: intent was not an issue in the case, and was irrelevant for the type of crime in question. At trial Prine denied doing it, therefore the State had no intent burden to meet. Similarly, while Prine had suggested an alternative explanation for A.M.C.’s complaint to a KBI officer he did not rely on this at trial and therefore the State had no need to show that this alternative explanation was unwarranted (absence of mistake).
It is on the matter of ‘plan’ or modus operandi that the Court breaks new ground. The Court of Appeals divided on this issue, noting a tension within the Kansas case law over the admission of this type of evidence in abuse cases. One line of cases uses language such as ‘strikingly similar’ and ‘signature act’ to describe the test required to allow this evidence to be admitted to prove that the defendants actions fit a particular way of committing the crime. The other line of cases simply required there to be a general method “similar enough to show a common approach that is tantamount to a plan”. The Court notes that this tension in the law is unhelpful and therefore crafts a standard to be followed in all cases. The standard it adopts is that the charges must be “so strikingly similar in pattern or so distinct in method of operation to the current allegations as to be a signature”. This decision is critical to this case, since while Prine’s prior behavior meets the looser standard it was sufficiently different in the three cases to fail to meet the newer stricter standard. Note to readers – the court’s decision as applied to this case hinges on a detailed analysis of the abuse in the three cases. Since that can be read at the main opinion linked above, it will not be repeated here, since such specifics are not necessary to describe what the test the Court arrived at was.
As a result of this ruling, the Court finds that the admission of this evidence was a reversible error and therefore vacates the conviction and sentence. Prine had also appealed his conviction for rape on the grounds that the acts he was convicted of were non-penetrative and that A.M.C.’s testimony at trial supported this (her original police interview did not). The Court rejects his argument, finding that the acts described could by a rational factfinder have been found to be penetrative under the definition in the statute in question. The Court therefore held that Prine can be tried again for rape. A.M.C., now 11 or 12 must face Prine again if she is to see him convicted.
Beier completes her opinion with a statement that makes it clear that the new standard will be applied by the Court and the Court of Appeals, and will presumably lead to many more convictions being overturned, though she invites the Legislature to craft an alternative standard that can survive review in the Court.
Chief Justice McFarland dissented. She argued that the Court’s decision on the new test for the admissibility of prior criminal acts to prove ‘plan’ was not clearer, just stricter and that it was not founded in law. She refers to the Court’s analysis of State v. Damewood, a 1989 case in which a pederast enticed his victim by cultivating the boy’s interest in beekeeping. In that case a previous victim, also coaxed into friendship with Damewood over the beekeeping, was able to have his account admitted. The Court held that this evidence could be admitted, and described the two incidents as ‘strikingly similar’. The outgoing Chief Justice traces these words, which she classes as an observation about the circumstances of the case and not a newly promulgated test, as they appear in subsequent cases and begin to become used as one anyway. She also notes that in 2002 they attract the word ‘signature’ to describe the method in question. She also cites a case from 1971 dealing with a piece of tax law which shows how precedents can pick up extra words down the years which totally distort their meaning. In the 1971 case the Court cut through the piled up errors and restated the original law, an action she would urge here. McFarland would allow the admission of the evidence since it shows a pattern of behavior similar enough to reasonably suppose that all the crimes were committed by the same person, which she suggests was the real holding of Damewood. Further note to readers – Chief Justice McFarland would have been the only member of the Court today who was a member at the time of Damewood. It would be interesting to know whether she took part in that decision.