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Georgia Supreme Court Announces Defendant May Invoke Rape Shield Statute to Bar State From Offering Evidence of Victim’s Past Sexual Behavior

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Georgia held that a defendant may invoke O.C.G.A. § 24-4-412 (“Rape Shield Statute”) to prohibit the State from offering evidence of a complaining witness’ past sexual behavior. In so doing, the Court overruled prior decisions of the Court of Appeals that held the Rape Shield Statute “cannot be invoked by a defendant to prevent a victim from offering otherwise relevant evidence.”

Charles White was found guilty of more than 20 sex offenses against three victims. White’s indictment came as a result of 12-year-old S.M. being accused of, and later convicted of, molesting her two younger stepsisters. S.M. told authorities that White was a relative of hers, that White began sexually abusing her when she was 5 years old, and that White did things to her similar to what she did to her stepsisters.

White filed a motion in limine to have evidence of S.M.’s prior sexual acts excluded from his trial because the evidence was more prejudicial than probative of proving any issue. The trial court denied White’s motion, and the State elicited testimony from S.M. regarding her prior sexual misconduct. Following his convictions, White moved for a new trial wherein he argued that the trial court committed plain error by admitting S.M.’s testimony about her sexual history in violation of the Rape Shield Statute. White was required to argue it was “plain error” because he failed to object at trial to the testimony on Rape Shield Statute grounds. The trial court denied the motion. The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that a defendant cannot invoke the Rape Shield Statute to prohibit a victim from offering otherwise relevant evidence. The Georgia Supreme Court granted White’s petition for certiorari.

The Court examined the Rape Shield Statute by first citing to the principles of statutory interpretation it articulated in Deal v. Coleman, 751 S.E.2d 337 (2013): “[W]e examine the plain language of the statute, presuming that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant. To that end, we must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning, we must view the statutory text in the context in which it appears, and we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would.... [And] if the statutory text is clear and unambiguous, we attribute to the statute its plain meaning, and our search for statutory meaning is at an end.” 

The text of the Rape Shield Statute states that evidence of a complaining witness’ past sexual behavior cannot be introduced by any party in any proceeding, except that the defense could introduce such evidence only if it tends to prove that the accused reasonably believed the complaining witness had consented to the conduct complained of in the prosecution. There is no additional exception to Georgia’s Rape Shield Statute that permits the State to offer such evidence for any purpose at any time, the Court noted.

The Court then addressed the Court of Appeals’ decisions to the contrary. The Court observed that older decisions from the Court of Appeals correctly held that a defendant may invoke the Rape Shield Statute to prohibit the State from offering evidence of the complaining witness’ past sexual behavior. But beginning with Demetrios v. State, 541 S.E.2d 83 (Ga. Ct. App. 2000), the Court of Appeals created a distinct line of cases in direct conflict with the older cases, holding that a defendant cannot invoke the Rape Shield Statute to prohibit a victim from offering otherwise relevant evidence. The Supreme Court ruled that the older cases are binding precedent, and the newer cases are invalid because (1) the newer cases wrote into the statute an exception that does not exist, and the doctrine of separation of powers prohibits the courts from writing legislation; and (2) the newer cases are decided by a panel of judges who do not have the authority to overturn the older cases – overturning the older cases would require a decision of all 15 justices of the Court of Appeals sitting en banc. The Court then explicitly overruled the newer line of cases, i.e., Demetrios and its progeny. 

The Court concluded that the trial court improperly admitted evidence of S.M.’s past sexual behavior. However, the Court went on to affirm the denial of White’s motion for new trial. In order to obtain relief under the “plain error” doctrine, White must show: (1) there was an error that was not intentionally waived; (2) the error was clear and obvious and not subject to dispute; (3) the error affected the outcome of the proceedings; and (4) the error seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings. State v. Kelly, 718 S.E.2d 232 (Ga. 2011). The Court found that White failed to show the error affected the outcome of the proceedings. It reasoned that White actually benefited from S.M.’s testimony by arguing that S.M. only accused White after she herself had been in trouble for assaulting her stepsisters. Accordingly, the Court rejected the reasoning of the Court of Appeals but affirmed the decision on other grounds. See: White v. State, 2019 Ga. LEXIS 66 (2019). 

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