In a decision earlier this year, the New Mexico Court of Appeals held in State v. Montoya that a defendant‘s 6th Amendment allows for confrontation of witnesses in criminal trialwere not violated when the lower court prevented him from questioning the victim about their prior sexual history together.
State v. Montoya presented an interesting set of undisputed facts. The defendant and the victim were in an altercation that turned physical. He was subsequently convicted of several charges including kidnapping and aggravated battery. The only dispute in the case was over the defendant‘s intent. The defendant claimed his actions were not intended to harm the victim but to initiate “make-up sex” which the couple often engaged in after an argument.
During the trial, the defendant tried to introduce evidence of their sexual relationship–including their tendency to use sexual relations as a dispute resolution technique–to show its influence on his state of mind at the time of the incident. Relying on New Mexico‘s Rape Shield Rule, the court denied his motion to introduce the evidence.
Enacted by the New Mexico Legislature in 1975, the Rape Shield Rule prevents the admission of opinion or reputation evidence regarding the victim‘s past sexual conduct. The Rule only permits admission in cases where the evidence is material to the case and where its prejudicial nature does not outweigh its probative value. This is a crucial evidentiary distinction that hinges on the discretion of the judge.
Although the defendant was unable to introduce this specific evidence, he was able to introduce evidence supporting his theory. In fact, the victim confirmed that she was not in fear during the encounter and explained that the defendant‘s action were an attempt to get her to consent to sex. Regardless of the introduction of this evidence, the defendant claimed the court violated his right to confront the witness.
In a criminal prosecution, the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution–and a similar provision in the New Mexico Constitution–guarantees the accused the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” These Confrontation Clause protections, however, are not absolute. Instead, trial courts retain wide discretion to impose reasonable limits on cross-examination to prevent harassment, confusion, or repetition.
The court in Montoya examined a number of factors to determine if the exclusion in this case was within the acceptable parameters. Based largely on the fact that the victim had introduced similar evidence, the court determined that the probative value of the new evidence had substantially diminished and would have been inflammatory and repetitive. In other words, the court determined that the value of the information to the jury in reaching a verdict was not nearly as strong as the information‘s potential to mislead them.
Accordingly, this recent holding by the New Mexico Appeals Court serves to further outline what protections are–and are not–required by the Confrontation Clause in light of what has come to be known as the Rape Shield Rule.