TN Supreme Court Rules on Generic Evidence in Child Molestation Cases

Child Molestation Cases Require Less Evidence than Other Criminal Cases

The new defense strategy in Child Molestation casesTN Supreme Court: Less Evidence Required in Child Molestation Cases

The Tennessee Supreme Court today ruled that when an alleged child victim testifies about repeated incidents of sexual abuse but cannot provide details about the acts, the prosecution is not obligated to choose a specific instance of abuse (also known as an election of offenses).

The announcement comes as the Court upheld the conviction of Jimmy Dale Qualls, of Hornsby, for 37 counts of sexual battery by an authority figure. The state asked the high Court to review the case after Qualls appealed to the Court of Appeals; Qualls claimed prosecution’s method of election was not sufficiently specific to guarantee the defendant his state constitutional right to a unanimous verdict on each charged offense. The Court, analyzing decisions from courts in other states, encouraged prosecutors to always attempt to gather details about specific incidents of sexual abuse.

While on the face of it, an impartial person can understand the dilemma that multiples acts of abuse create for prosecutors, and certainly no one wants a repeat abuser to ‘benefit’ from (actual) repeated acts of abuse. The concern, however, is that when a future defendant tries to defend against such an accusation, and a child provides inconsistent details about times, places, dates, it doesn’t even help against this “it’s in there somewhere” prosecution. Welcome to the Grab-Bag Theory of Justice.

Let’s take it out of the context of child molestation cases so that one can be more clear-headed about the difficulty that it presents for the future defendant

  • Imagine that a man is accused of stealing money from a cash register where he works.
  • The store owner pounces on the employee, saying, “I saw you steal from the cash register just now and on other multiple occasions while you’ve worked here.”
  • The employee responds, “I’m innocent! Give me an example, and let’s look at the video footage!”
  • The store owner gives a specific date and time, the two review the footage, and it becomes clear that no theft occurred.
  • The store owner then says, “Hmm, I bet you have some of my money in your pocket right now.”
  • The employee immediately pulls out his pockets and wallet to show that he has no money on his person at all.
  • The store owner then shrugs and says, “Well, it happened on so many occasions that it doesn’t really matter about today – you did it at some point.”
  • The employee is fired and the store owner is pleased that he has ‘caught the thief.’

What could this employee have done to change the store owner’s opinion? The employee is basically playing Whack-A-Mole against these multiple accusations.

It’s interesting to note that the court doesn’t think this is an appropriate burden for defendants charged with any other crimes, as this is specifically reserved for defendants accused of child molestation charges. The rules apply to everyone … except when they don’t.

The court took an opportunity to highlight an ugly case and made bad law out of it, IMHO. They look to no less than California in their search for a justification for this new approach. Then the court takes further opportunity to create its own pattern jury instruction, and vacate the Criminal Court of Appeals reversal, so that it can apply immediately and retroactively to this case.

Read the opinion in State of Tennessee v. Jimmy Dale Qualls. And if you’re short on time, here’s a high-level summary: Although the Election Doctrine is a fundamental Constitutional right of the accused, it should be completely ignored for some accused, and we’re certain that they’ll do just fine without it.