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Commonwealth v. Stockhammer

    Brief Fact Summary. Jonathan Stockhammer (Defendant) was convicted of rape and assault with intent to commit rape, following a sexual incident with a woman (Complainant). At trial, Defendant sought disclosure of various records relating to Complainant’s evaluation by psychiatrists and counselors, but the court did not allow such disclosure; the court also disallowed Defendant from questioning Complainant about her sexual activity. Defendant appeals his conviction here.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A criminal defendant on trial for rape and assault with intent to rape is permitted to cross-examine a complainant with respect to her past sexual relationships when the defendant asserts a defense of consent, the credibility of the complainant is at issue, and when the cross-examination is designed to uncover evidence that the complainant is biased and motivated to lie. Also, such a criminal defendant is entitled to view records of the complainant’s hospital and psychiatric treatment in order to pursue evidence of the complainant’s bias, prejudice or motive to lie.

    Facts. Defendant and Complainant, at the time of the alleged rape, were both college freshmen, and friends. After spending a day with her boyfriend from out of town, Complainant and Defendant went to dinner together. Following dinner, Complainant and Defendant claim different events transpired. Complainant claimed that she and Defendant were alone in her room, and that she drank some alcohol; she asserted that Defendant did not drink any alcohol on the night in question. Complainant claimed that Defendant made sexual advances at her, but that she rejected the advances. Complainant then claims Defendant held her down and forced her to have sexual intercourse with her.
    According to Defendant, he and Complainant engaged in consensual fondling after dinner, and that he left thereafter to, “attend a previously scheduled engagement with some friends.” Defendant claimed that he returned later that night and had consensual sexual intercourse with Complainant.
    Nearly nine month later, Complainant, “ingested a large number of cold pills and was hospitalized.” Following her hospitalization, Complainant spent six days as an inpatient at a New York Medical Center, and also received outpatient counseling from a social worker. After the hospitalization, Complainant’s father received an anonymous call, telling him that Complainant, “was telling others that she had been sexually assaulted.” Complainant’s father confronted Complainant, and Complainant told him that she was in fact raped by Defendant.
    At trial, Defendant was allowed to view certain hospital records of Complainant’s, but was not allowed to view the social worker’s records, after the trial court held an in camera inspection and ruled them inadmissible. Defendant was unaware of and did not view the records from the New York Medical Center. Defendant was convicted of rape, and appealed that conviction here.

    Issues.
    Did the lower court error in ruling that Defendant could not question Complainant about her sexual history with her boyfriend to establish the existence of any consent, bias, and/or motive to testify falsely?

    Did the lower court error in ruling that Defendant could not review the records from Complainant’s hospital and psychiatric treatment in order to search for evidence of Complainant’s bias, prejudice or motive to lie?

    Held. Reversed and remanded.
    Yes; Defendant should have been allowed to cross-examine Complainant regarding Complainant’s sexual activity in order to establish the existence of any consent, bias, and/or motive to testify falsely on the part of Complainant.

    Yes; Defendant has a state constitutional right to confront his accuser, and therefore should have been allowed to review the records from Complainant’s hospital and psychiatric evaluations in order to search for evidence of Complainant’s bias, prejudice, and/or motive to lie.


    Discussion. The court addressed each issue separately.
    As to the question of whether Defendant had a right to cross-examine Complainant, the court reasoned that, “[t]he principles protecting a defendant’s right to cross-examination are particularly important when the charge is rape, because ‘[t]he right to cross-examine a Complainant in a rape case to show a false accusation may be the last refuge of an innocent defendant.’” (citations omitted). The court went on: “[i]n this case, the defense was consent . . . [and] [t]he evidence in many ways was contradictory, and, even looking only at the Complainant’s testimony, in some respects was inconsistent with an allegation of rape. Thus, the Complainant’s credibility was of critical importance.” The court continued on, “Defense counsel intended to elicit from the Complainant that her parents strongly disapproved of premarital sex, and that she was afraid of how they would react to the knowledge that she was sexually active.” Explaining further, the court stated: If counsel had succeeded
    in eliciting testimony to this effect, it would have been most helpful to the defendant’s case. Such evidence would support the inference that the Complainant had reason to lie in addition to her concern that her boy friend might learn that she had sex with the defendant. The testimony that counsel hoped to elicit would have supported the inference that the Complainant was motivated to lie to prevent her parents from learning that she was sexually active. This would have amounted to a separate and discrete basis of impeachment of the Complainant’s credibility.

    Finally, the court concluded: In sum, the judge prevented counsel from pursuing on cross-examination a line of inquiry that was not violative of rape-shield strictures and that could have established that the Complainant was biased and had a specific reason to lie about what had happened between her and the defendant. This reason to lie, if proved, would have been unrelated to other possible reasons that the Complainant may have had to dissemble, and it was not provable through other evidence admitted at trial. Therefore, and in view of the conflicting nature of the evidence of the defendant’s guilt, we cannot say that the introduction of this evidence would not have had a material effect on the outcome of the trial.

    As to the question of whether Defendant had a right to review Complainant’s medical treatment and psychiatric evaluation records, the court reasoned that, “[t]he United States Supreme Court has held that, where a criminal defendant desires access to privileged records of the confidential communications of the complaining witness, the interests of the defendant and the State in a fair trial are fully protected by an in camera review of those records by the trial judge.” However, the court went on to reason that, “[t]he Federal standard requiring only an in camera review by the trial judge of privileged records requested by the defendant rests on the assumptions that trial judges can temporarily and effectively assume the role of advocate when examining such records; and that the interests of the State and Complainant in the confidentiality of the records cannot adequately be protected in any other way. Neither assumption withstands close scrutiny.” The court then went on to discus
    s Defendant’s constitutional right to confront his accuser, and stated, “in appropriate circumstances, even absolute statutory privileges (nonconstitutionally based) must yield to a defendant’s constitutional right to use privileged communications in his defense . . . we are not persuaded that allowing counsel access to the treatment records at issue in this case would do great violence to the less firmly based policies represented by [Massachusetts law].” The court concluded, “[i]n these circumstances, those policies must give way to the defendant’s need to examine the Complainant’s treatment records.”


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