Ruling allows prior crimes in sex offender trials

Published 11:44 pm Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Prosecutors and children’s advocates are applauding a Mississippi Supreme Court ruling that allows sex offenders’ previous crimes against minors to be used against the offenders at trial.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence said Tuesday that the change will help protect children who have been abused by repeat offenders.

“It’s absolutely a great day for children,” Lawrence said, adding that he believed the court’s previous rule “hurt the children and helped the pedophiles.”

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Attorney General Jim Hood said justices made a “courageous” decision.

“It’ll help us in cases where predators are abusing children,” Hood said.

The Supreme Court last week by a 6-3 vote overturned a 1989 decision that prior sexual assault evidence involving children couldn’t be brought up in trial.

The decision came in the case of Shannon Troy Derouen, who was convicted in May 2007 in Jackson County Circuit Court on two counts of fondling an 8-year-old girl. Derouen was sentenced to eight years in prison and seven years supervision after her release.

In a two-part ruling, justices upheld Derouen’s conviction and sentence in a nearly unanimous vote.

Derouen’s trial judge refused to allow the state to call two witnesses to testify about prior accusations against the woman, basing it on Mississippi court rules. The Supreme Court’s decision had no bearing on Derouen’s case but will affect future rulings.

“Sex crimes against children are furtive, secret events usually lacking evidence other than the conflicting testimony of the defendant and the victim,” Justice George C. Carlson Jr. wrote.

“The only viable proof of motive, intent, plan, knowledge, identity or absence of mistake or accident may be the pattern of abuse suffered by others at the hand of the defendant.”

Justice James E. Graves Jr., one of the dissenters, said there was no need to change how evidence of prior acts against minors are handled at trial.

Graves wrote that such evidence was admitted in federal court, but the Mississippi Supreme Court had not adopted those rules.

The change brings Mississippi in line with most other states, said Jack King, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Criminal Lawyers.

King said if a prosecutor can show that such evidence is relevant to an issue other than the defendant’s character, then it’s usually admissible.

For the defense attorneys, the fear is “the jury is going to think he’s so bad, he should be convicted of something, whether or not there’s enough evidence to convict him on the crime that he is charged,” King said.

Lawrence, who prosecuted Derouen, said using prior offenses against a defendant won’t be automatic. He said prosecutors will have to show relevance, that the evidence is reliable and that the value of the information outweighs prejudicing the jury.

Kristian Clark, a forensic interviewer for the South Mississippi Advocacy Center, said she believes the change is appropriate “because child pedophilia is repetitive.”

Clark said she averages about 25 interviews of children each month, but she said she hasn’t been involved in any trials in which prosecutors wanted to present evidence of previous claims of sex abuse or molestation.