Rule 403 Applicability and Unfair Prejudice

Rule 403 Can Be Used to Omit Relevant Evidence

When can relevant evidence be omitted under Rule 403 because it will cause unfair prejudice?

Even relevant evidence can be deemed inadmissible if Rule 403 is satisfied.

The Utah Supreme Court recently addressed the applicability of Rule 403 of the Utah Ruels of Evidence in State v. Cuttler, 2015 UT 95. In that case, James Cuttler was charged with vaginally raping and orally and anally sodomizing his seven-year-old daughter (K.C.). The State tried to introduce evidence, pursuant to rule 404(c) of the Utah Rules of Evidence, that back in years 1984-1985 Cuttler had similar sexual relations with his then eight- and ten-year-old daughters. This evidence the State hoped would demonstrate a propensity to commit the crimes charged. The district court reasoned that this evidence met the propensity standard for admission but that it did not pass rule 403 muster because the evidence displayed a danger of unfair prejudice that substantially outweighed its probative value. Thus, the court ordered that the evidence not be admitted. The question on appeal was whether the evidence’s probative value was substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence. Utah R. Evid. 403. The Supreme Court of Utah reversed the district court’s decision because it abused its discretion in two ways.

The district court did not apply a correct legal standard when they required that the evidence or prior sexual abuse overcome the factors set forth in State v. Shickles in order to satisfy rule 403. The Shickles factors are as follows: the strength of the evidence as to the commission of the other crime, the similarities between the crimes, the interval of time that has elapsed between the crimes, the need for the evidence, the efficacy of alternative proof, and the degree to which the evidence probably will rouse the jury to overmastering hostility. State v. Shickles, 760 P.2d 291, 295-96 (Utah Sup. Ct. 1988). However, the governing legal standard for evaluating whether evidence satisfies rule 403 is the plain language of the rule and nothing else. In addition, the district court abused its discretion by the way it assessed the similarities between the evidence of Cuttler’s prior abuse and the current alleged abuse.

The court explained that K.C.’s account of abuse was significantly similar to the abuse suffered by her two older sisters. They were all father-daughter relationships, the gender and ages of the victims were similar, Cuttler allegedly conducted all three types of penetration with K.C. as he did with the two older sisters, there was a prolonged time period over which the abuse occurred in all three instances, and lastly, Cuttler nicknamed his penis each time as well. Therefore, the Utah Supreme Court was of the opinion that the evidence of prior sexual abuse should have been admitted in K.C.’s trial because it was unreasonable for the district court to conclude that such evidence was not similar enough to meet the standard under rule 403. Even if the previous evidence shows only propensity and does not go directly to the elements of the crimes charged, this is not a factor that weighs against the evidence’s admissibility under rule 403. The twenty-seven-year time gap between the abuse of the older sisters and the alleged abuse of K.C. was also not a strong argument against admitting the evidence and was an unreasonable concern of the district court. The time gap between offenses was likely due to being in prison for nine years as well as the time that had to pass before K.C. could reach prepubescent age. In conclusion, the court did not want to stop the prosecution from presenting evidence of intergenerational sexual abuse.

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