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People v. Yachik.

2020 COA 100. No. 17CA0444. Criminal Law—Sexual Assault on a Child—Res Gestae Evidence—Expert Testimony—Prosecutorial Misconduct.

June 25, 2020

Defendant was charged with two counts of sexual assault on S.Y., a child. At trial, the People introduced extensive and graphic evidence of physical abuse that defendant perpetrated against S.Y. and asserted that defendant groomed S.Y. and the jury to get away with his wrongdoing. A jury found defendant guilty as charged. He received consecutive sentences of 16 years to life on each charge.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erroneously admitted evidence that he repeatedly subjected S.Y. to acts of child abuse as res gestae for the charged sexual assaults. Here, the physical abuse evidence was not critical to the jury’s understanding of the charged crimes because nothing in the record linked those incidents in time or circumstance. The physical abuse evidence did not fill in any missing pieces in the “story” of the sexual assaults, nor did it assist the jury in drawing appropriate inferences from the evidence. Because the physical abuse was extrinsic to the charged sexual assaults, it could not be characterized as res gestae. Therefore, the trial court abused its discretion by admitting the physical abuse evidence as such. Further, there is a reasonable probability that the graphic, extensive, and detailed physical abuse evidence contributed to defendant’s conviction, so this error was not harmless.

Defendant also argued that the trial court erroneously admitted expert testimony about offender grooming behaviors. The prosecution had a “blind” expert testify about the behaviors, including grooming, of adult perpetrators of sexual abuse. The trial court did not make specific findings about the expert’s qualifications. If the prosecution seeks to admit this expert testimony in defendant’s new trial, the trial court must make specific findings on the record regarding the relevance and reliability of the evidence before deciding whether to admit it.

Defendant further contended that the prosecutor committed misconduct by arguing during closing that defendant groomed the jury. Essentially, the prosecutor argued that if the jury believed defendant, it was only because he had succeeded in grooming them. This argument encouraged the jury to view defendant in a negative and manipulative light and to decide the case based on personal interest and emotion rather than on a rational assessment of the evidence. The argument was thus improper and violated defendant’s right to due process and a fair trial by an impartial jury. On remand, the trial court should not permit the “groomed jury” comments.

The convictions were reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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