Establishing Penetration in Sexual Assault Cases

Criminal acts of sexual violence generally fall into three categories: exposure, contact, and penetration. While prosecutors introduce evidence to establish the statutory elements at trial, defense strategies focus on targeting any vulnerability in that evidence. Where the charged offense includes an element of penetration, defenses may also include specific challenges to the prosecution’s ability to prove that penetration occurred. If the prosecution is unable to prove the element of penetration beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused will be acquitted or convicted of a less serious offense. This Strategies in Brief explains the legal requirements for establishing penetration in sexual assault prosecutions and offers strategies for effectively identifying, evaluating, and presenting evidence of penetration. The article: summarizes the categories of criminal sex offense statutes and outlines the legal requirements to establish penetration; provides strategies to prepare for and try sexual assault cases involving penetration; identifies and offers guidance for responding to common defense challenges to establishing penetration in sexual assault cases.


Keep Calm and Understand Elonis v. U.S.

The decision of Elonis v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2001 (2015), in which the United States Supreme Court reversed the defendant’s conviction for posting on Facebook threats to harm his wife and others, has caused a good deal of concern among prosecutors, civil attorneys representing victims in protective order proceedings, law enforcement, and advocates. This article analyzes the Court’s opinion, breaks down its meaning for the investigation and prosecution of cases involving online threats and stalking, and explains why the Elonis decision is not cause for alarm. The article suggests strategies for charging and presenting evidence in cases involving threats or stalking on public forums, such as Facebook, to maximize the likelihood of a conviction that will stand up on appeal.


Identifying, Investigating, and Prosecuting Witness Intimidation in Cases of Sexual Abuse in Confinement

Regardless of the setting in which it occurs, witness intimidation is a chronic problem with devastating implications for victims and for the prosecution of crimes. Victims of sexual abuse in confinement are especially vulnerable to intimidation because they typically have fewer opportunities to escape from (or even avoid) their abusers. This article identifies strategies for investigations and prosecutions that build trust in the criminal justice system and provide multiple, safe, and confidential points of entry for potential reporters. It also discusses victim and witness safety, retaliatory violence, verbal and physical intimidation, and financial and emotional manipulation. The author also examines the potential for intimidation and violence over the course of multiple cases and across time in a single case, as well as policies and protocols that promote effective prosecution of these cases.


Pennsylvania’s New Victim Behavior Expert Testimony Statute Upheld: Commonwealth v. Olivo

On November 18, 2015, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided Commonwealth v. Olivo, upholding, against state constitutional attack, the new Pennsylvania evidentiary statute permitting expert testimony to explain victim behavior in the prosecution of crimes of sexual violence. Previously, the courts of Pennsylvania had steadfastly resisted admission of such testimony, despite the widespread acceptance of such evidence by other courts across the country. This article reviews the facts of the case and discusses its implications for highlighting the important role of expert testimony in aiding juries to reach just verdicts, unhindered by myths and misconceptions about how “real” victims would behave. Pennsylvanias-New-Victim-Behavior-Expert-Testimony-Statute-Upheld-Commonwealth-v.-Olivo-SIB25


Ohio v. Clark: A Bit of Confrontation Clarification, A Few Tantalizing Hints

The United States Supreme Court decision in Ohio v. Clark has been heralded by many prosecutors and legal scholars as significantly broadening the admissibility of evidence under the Confrontation Clause, as interpreted by Crawford v. Washington and its progeny. The decision does not break startling new ground, however; rather, the Court’s decision is one that flows more or less naturally from the Court’s previous pronouncements about what it is that makes a hearsay statement testimonial, and therefore inadmissible at trial unless the witness is subject to cross-examination, either at trial or (in the case of a witness unavailable for trial) at a prior proceeding. This article reviews the opinion’s direction and guidance to trial courts (and prosecutors) about the admissibility of statements made to individuals not affiliated with law enforcement, as well as statements made by children or others who may be limited in their ability to grasp the notion of potential future prosecution. The article discusses the importance of the opinion’s deviation from the language used in previous decisions—a distinction that promises to fuel the ongoing debate about the future of Confrontation Clause jurisprudence.


Federal Firearms Prohibition Extends to Persons Convicted of Reckless Misdemeanor Crimes of Domestic Violence: Voisine v. United States

The United States Supreme Court has held that the federal firearms prohibition for individuals convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence applies even to convictions having recklessness as an element of the offense. In Voisine v. United States, the Court rejected the petitioners’ argument that the prohibition was inapplicable where the predicate offense could have been based upon a finding of reckless conduct, as opposed to purposeful/intentional or knowing conduct. This article outlines how the Voisine decision has definitively settled the question of whether convictions under statutes that include the reckless infliction of injury qualify as misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence for purposes of the federal firearms prohibition. It also provides suggestions for prosecutors about how to best leverage this decision in domestic violence cases in ways that keep victims—and communities—safe.


Evidence of Other “Bad Acts” in Intimate Partner Violence, Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Human Trafficking Prosecutions

In proving a case of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, stalking, or human trafficking, it is often crucial to introduce evidence that the defendant has committed some other crime or bad act—usually before or after the charged crime. Such evidence is often viewed with caution by trial and appellate courts, because of the perceived risk that juries will convict the defendant based upon evidence that they committed some crime other than the one charged or that the defendant is a bad person and therefore probably guilty of the charged crime. Prosecutors should file pretrial motions in limine any time they anticipate introducing evidence of a defendant’s crimes or other bad acts, regardless of whether such a motion is required by law. It is important to identify, and to argue, any potentially applicable grounds for admission. This article describes the theories under which evidence of other bad acts might be admissible, depending on the law of the jurisdiction, gives examples, and offers further resources to help prosecutors overcome specific objections.