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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Rape Shield Blocks Questions about Accuser’s Nonconsensual Sexual Activity

Ohio’s rape shield law prohibits an accuser’s consensual and nonconsensual sexual activity from being admitted as evidence in a criminal case, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A unanimous Supreme Court rejected the argument of Cedric Jeffries that he could introduce evidence at his trial for rape and kidnapping that his accuser previously had been sexually assaulted by another person when she was 4 or 5 years old. Jeffries argued that the purpose of the rape shield law was to protect victims from being harassed about only their consensual sexual history.

Writing for the Court, Justice Michael P. Donnelly stated the law does not distinguish between consensual and nonconsensual activity and that Jeffries’ narrow interpretation of the law “vastly underestimates the insidiousness of victim blaming.”

The decision affirmed the rulings of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court and the Eighth District Court of Appeals.

‘Father Figure’  Accused of Raping Child
The mother of a girl identified in court records as D.S. lost custody of D.S. and two of D.S.’ half siblings early in their lives. Before she was 6 years old, D.S. lived in three different foster homes.

In 2006, when D.S. was 6, a woman identified as H.G. obtained custody of D.S. and the two half-siblings. H.G. was the grandmother of one of the half-siblings. Jeffries lived with H.G., his mother. Jeffries was the father of one of the half-siblings, but was not D.S.’ biological father. D.S. lived with H.G. and Jeffries until 2016, and D.S. considered Jeffries to be a father figure.

In 2016, D.S. reported that Jeffries repeatedly sexually abused her over the course of nine years.

Jeffries was charged with kidnapping and raping D.S. when she was 12 years old, and kidnapping and raping her when she was 16.

Prior Allegation Discovered
During the pretrial discovery process, Jeffries’ lawyer was able to review D.S.’ child-abuse-investigation records. Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services records revealed that when D.S. was 4 or 5 years old, she reported that a foster brother had sexually assaulted her.

During the opening stages of Jeffries’ trial, his lawyer informed the court that she planned to question D.S. about the prior sexual abuse allegation. Under the Ohio Supreme Court’s 1992 State v. Boggs decision, such questioning is subject to a separate in camera hearing to determine if the questioning is prohibited by the rape shield law.

At the closed hearing, D.S. testified she was inappropriately touched by her foster brother and was compelled into engaging in intercourse. She said she had been truthful when reporting the incident to the county agency. The trial court concluded the rape shield law barred the prior assault from being admitted as evidence.

Jeffries’s attorney maintained the rape shield law bars only questions about consensual sexual activity, not nonconsensual activity such as an assault. The lawyer told the judge the evidence was necessary to establish D.S.’ “knowledge of the system” and for rebutting any inferences that D.S.’ behavioral issues as a young child were the result of Jeffries’ abuse.

The judge barred the questioning, finding the evidence of the prior assault was not particularly relevant and  there was very little evidence D.S. later acted in a way that was abnormal for a preteen who had lived in multiple foster homes.

Offender Challenges Sentence
A jury found Jeffries guilty on all four counts, and he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison and classified as a sex offender.

Jeffries appealed his conviction to the Eighth District, arguing that evidence of the prior allegation of a sexual assault is not barred by the rape shield law, and the trial court’s exclusion of the evidence deprived him of a fair trial. He argued he had a constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him. Citing Boggs, the Eighth District affirmed the trial court’s exclusion and Jeffries’ conviction.

Jeffries’ appealed to the Supreme Court, raising three issues with the lower courts’ decisions. The Supreme Court agreed to hear only his contention that the rape shield law applies to prior consensual activity and not to nonconsensual activity.

Court Examines Key Terms in Shield Law
The crimes of rape, R.C. 2907.02, and gross sexual imposition, R.C. 2907.05, include a rape shield provision, which states: “Evidence of specific instances of the victim’s sexual activity, opinion evidence of the victim’s sexual activity, and reputation evidence of the victim’s sexual activity shall not be admitted under this section unless it involves evidence of the origin of semen, pregnancy, or disease, or the victim’s past sexual activity with the offender, and only to the extent that the court finds that the evidence is material to a fact at issue in the case and that its inflammatory or prejudicial nature does not outweigh its probative value.”

Justice Donnelly explained the resolution of this case turns on the meaning of the term “sexual activity.” The opinion noted that state lawmakers have defined “sexual activity” as meaning “sexual conduct,” “sexual contact,” or both. State law describes both those terms in detail.

The Court ruled that neither definition would exclude nonconsensual activity as part of the definition   Nothing in the plain language of the law indicates “sexual activity” means “consensual sexual activity,” the opinion stated.  The Court noted, though, that “sexual activity” does not include false claims of sexual activity in prior sexual assault accusations.

Jeffries maintained the clear purpose of the rape shield law is to prevent “impermissible attacks on some Victorian-minded theory of promiscuity,” the opinion noted. He argued that applying the shield to an accuser’s nonconsensual activity does nothing to promote the purpose of the law.

The Court stated it has previously ruled the law promotes several interests, including preventing harassment of victims, discouraging attempts to “try the victim” rather than the accused in rape cases, encouraging victims to report sexual assaults, and excluding evidence that is “unduly inflammatory and prejudicial.”

“Our holding that nonconsensual activity is included in the meaning of ‘sexual activity’ in the rape- shield law furthers the fundamental purpose of the law,” the Court concluded.

2018-0338. State v. Jeffries, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-1539.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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