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Connecticut Supreme Court: Trial Court Abused Discretion by Limiting Self-Represented Defendant’s Direct Examination Regarding Risk of Injury to a Child

by Matt Clarke

The Supreme Court of Connecticut held that a trial court erred when it limited the testimony of a self-represented defendant in a trial for injury to a child. The testimony at issue would have explained why the defendant felt it necessary to physically drag his daughter to an appointment at a mental health facility, which was relevant to his parental justification defense.

Mark T. had custody of his 13-year-old daughter, A, for about three weeks when he scheduled an appointment for her to receive counseling at a local mental health facility because he was having significant difficulty managing her aggressive behavior. On the day of the appointment, he went to A’s school to take her to the mental health facility. A’s special education teacher, Monika Wilkos, escorted A to Mark T. However, A repeatedly protested and stated that she didn’t want to go with him. Mark T. attempted to calmly convince her to attend the appointment. All efforts to persuade her failed, so he tried to pick her up and carry her. A resisted, and during the “tussle,” she fell to the floor. Mark T. then grabbed her by her ankle and dragged her down the hallway. School personnel called the police. The next day, the school nurse and psychologist notice bruising on A’s body and called the Department of Children and Families.

Mark T. was charged with breach of the peace and risk of injury to a child. He elected to represent himself at trial. The prosecution moved to seal all references to information that could be used to identify A, and the trial court agreed to do so.

At trial, Mark T. asserted the parental justification defense under General Statutes § 53a-18 (now § 53a-18(a)(1)). However, when he attempted to introduce evidence about A’s history of aggressive behavior at home and at school, his difficulty managing that behavior, and his efforts to obtain mental health treatment for her, which led to the incident he was being tried for, the prosecution repeatedly objected to the line of questioning. The trial court sustained many of them, stifling Mark T.’s efforts to establish his defense. 

The trial court limited Mark T.’s direct examination of himself by allowing the prosecution to repeatedly object when he tried to discuss A’s unmanageable aggressive behavior and his desperate search for professional help for her. When he attempted to describe the nature of the mental health treatment he had arranged for the day of the incident, the trial court sustained the prosecution’s objection, potentially leaving the jury with the misimpression that it was merely an after-school program.

The jury found him guilty of risk of injury to a child. The trial court sentenced him to four years in prison, suspended execution, and three years of probation. Mark T. appealed, but the Appellate Court affirmed. The Supreme Court agreed to hear his appeal and appointed counsel to represent him. On appeal, Mark T. argued, among other issues, that the trial court improperly limited his direct examination of himself.

The Court began its analysis by noting that a defendant’s proffered evidence relating to his defense must be “relevant”; otherwise, excluding it doesn’t affect his right to present a defense. State v. Bennett, 155 A.3d 188 (Conn. 2017). Trial courts have wide discretion in determining the admissibility of evidence, and rulings on evidentiary matters will be overturned only when there’s been a clear abuse of discretion. State v. Calabrese, 902 A.2d 1044 (Conn. 2006). The Court also observed that it is the practice of Connecticut courts “to construe the rules of practice liberally in favor of” self-represented defendants. New Haven v. Bonner, 863 A.2d 680 (Conn. 2005).

The Court stated that Conn. Code Evid. § 4-1 governs relevance determinations. It provides: “Relevant evidence means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is material to the determination of the proceeding more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” The concept of relevance entails two components: (1) probative value and (2) materiality. Id. On probative value, the Court explained “[e]vidence is not rendered inadmissible because it is not conclusive. All that is required is that the evidence tend to support a relevant fact even to a slight degree….” State v. Kalil, 107 A.3d 343 (Conn. 2014). Regarding materiality, the Court explained that it depends on what the issue in the case is, which in turn is determined by the pleadings and governing substantive law. Conn. Code Evid. § 4-1, commentary.

The Court stated that the governing substantive law for purposes of the relevancy determination is the parental justification defense. By statute, a parent “may use reasonable physical force upon such minor … when and to the extent that he reasonably believes such to be necessary to maintain discipline or to promote the welfare of such minor….” General Statutes (Rev. to 2015) § 53a-18. Juries must distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable use of force when this defense is raised. State v. Nathan J., 982 A.2d 1067 (Conn. 2009).

The Court then listed all the many ways Mark T. was barred from fully and clearly testifying about the problems he was having with A, her aggression, and the nature of the professional help he sought for her. The Court declared that the barred “testimony was highly relevant” to his parental justification defense. First, the testimony at issue would have provided critical probative facts for the jury to consider when deciding whether Mark T.’s use of force was reasonable or not, according to the Court. Second, those probative facts were essential to establishing the subjective and objective reasonableness of his use of force, the Court explained, reasoning that the nature and severity of A’s behavioral problems were material to his subjective belief for the urgent need to get A to her mental health appointment immediately and establishing what a reasonable parent would do in Mark T.’s position.

Thus, the Court ruled that the “trial court abused its discretion by precluding the defendant’s testimony about A’s ongoing aggression, the defendant’s struggle with managing her behavior, and the measures the defendant had taken to care for her urgent mental health difficulties.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Court and remanded for a new trial. State v. Mark T., 260 A.3d 402 (Conn. 2021). 

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