Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

State v. Williams

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

May 1, 2018

STATE OF MISSOURI, Respondent,
v.
TRAVIS W. WILLIAMS, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF CASS COUNTY, The Honorable William B. Collins, Judge.

          PAUL C. WILSON, JUDGE.

         A jury convicted Travis Williams ("Williams") of three counts of first-degree statutory sodomy. See § 566.062.1, RSMo.[1] The circuit court sentenced Williams as a predatory sexual offender to three concurrent sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 50 years. See § 558.018.2. Williams appealed, and the court of appeals transferred the case to this Court on the ground that the appeal raised an issue within the exclusive appellate jurisdiction of this Court as set forth in article V, section 3, of the Missouri Constitution. That issue is whether article I, section 18(c), added to the Missouri Constitution in 2014, violates due process.

         Article I, section 18(c) is an amalgam of Federal Rules of Evidence 414 and 403. Every federal circuit that has considered a similar due process challenge has rejected it. See, e.g., United States v. LeMay, 260 F.3d 1018, 1024-27 (9th Cir. 2001) (rejecting claim, in part because of the protections provided by Rule 403, that Rule 414 violates due process on its face); United States v. Castillo, 140 F.3d 874, 881 (10th Cir. 1998) (same).[2] For similar reasons, this Court rejects Williams's due process challenge to article I, section 18(c).

         This Court also rejects Williams's claims that the circuit court misapplied this provision either: (1) by failing to make an express finding the probative value of Williams's prior conviction was not substantially outweighed by the prejudicial effect of that evidence, or (2) by admitting that evidence even though its probative value was substantially outweighed by its prejudicial effect. Accordingly, the judgment is affirmed.

         Background

         In November 1996, Williams, then 26 years old, pleaded guilty to first-degree statutory sodomy for inserting his thumb in a minor child's vagina. He was sentenced to five years in prison but, after completing a 120-day program in a sex offender assessment unit, execution of his sentence was suspended and he was placed on probation for five years. In 1999, Williams violated his probation and his sentence was executed. Williams was released from prison in 2003.

         Shortly after Williams was released from prison, he began dating T.W. ("Mother"), the biological mother of M.E.E. ("Victim"). Early in their relationship, Williams informed Mother he had a prior conviction for sexually molesting a young girl. Mother continued to maintain a relationship with Williams and later introduced Williams to M.E. ("Father"), Victim's biological father. At the time, Mother and Father were still living together. When Father discovered Williams was a registered sex offender, he repeatedly told Mother he did not want Williams around the children. In February 2004, Mother left Father and took Victim and Victim's two older siblings with her. Shortly thereafter, Mother allowed Williams to move in with her and her children. In 2005, Mother married Williams.

         The first instance of abuse to which Victim testified occurred in 2008, when she was roughly eight years old. Victim recalled she stayed home from school to recover from an illness. Williams was the only other person in the home at the time. Victim and Williams were eating candy and, when Victim said she wanted the last piece, Williams told her she could not have it unless she took "off all [her] clothes and let him play with [her] butt." Williams eventually coerced Victim into taking off all her clothes in his bedroom and touched her bottom while playing with himself. Williams continued to abuse Victim until the latter part of 2013 by touching Victim's genitals and bottom and by forcing her to perform manual and oral sex acts upon him, usually when no one else was home. The frequency of Williams's abuse declined after Williams and Mother separated in 2012, though Williams continued to abuse Victim on some occasions.

         In September 2013, Victim reported Williams's abuse to the police. Shortly thereafter, the state charged Williams with three counts of first-degree statutory sodomy.[3]The state subsequently filed an information in lieu of indictment alleging Williams should be sentenced as a predatory sexual offender.

         Pursuant to article I, section 18(c) of the Missouri Constitution, the state filed a pretrial motion to admit evidence of Williams's 1996 conviction on the ground it demonstrated his propensity to commit the offenses with which he was charged. Over Williams's objection, the circuit court granted the state's motion but specified that, unless the parties later disagreed, the state would be limited to proving Williams's prior plea by way of a stipulation.

         The case was tried to a jury in February 2015. Over Williams's objection, [4] the stipulation was read to the jury. At the end of the three-day trial, the jury convicted Williams of all three counts of first-degree statutory sodomy. After the jury rendered its verdicts, Williams moved for a new trial on several grounds. The circuit court overruled Williams's motion, concluded he was a predatory sexual offender in light of his prior conviction, and sentenced him to three concurrent sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years. Williams appeals, and this Court has jurisdiction under article V, section 3, of the Missouri Constitution.

         Analysis

         Williams challenges the constitutionality, proper construction, and application of article I, section 18(c), which Missouri voters added to the Missouri Constitution in 2014. In its entirety, this section provides:

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 17 and 18(a) of this article to the contrary, in prosecutions for crimes of a sexual nature involving a victim under eighteen years of age, relevant evidence of prior criminal acts, whether charged or uncharged, is admissible for the purpose of corroborating the victim's testimony or demonstrating the defendant's propensity to commit the crime with which he or she is presently charged. The court may exclude relevant evidence of prior criminal acts if the probative value of the evidence is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.

Mo. Const. art. I, § 18(c). This amendment was adopted with the evident purpose of abrogating State v. Ellison, 239 S.W.3d 603, 607-08 (Mo. banc 2007), and its progeny.

         Williams raises three main points. First, he contends article I, section 18(c), on its face, violates due process. Second, Williams contends the circuit court erred in admitting evidence of his 1996 guilty plea and conviction for first-degree statutory sodomy without first making an express finding that the probative value of this evidence was not substantially outweighed by its danger of unfair prejudice. Finally, Williams contends the circuit court erred in admitting evidence of his prior criminal act because the danger of unfair prejudice from that evidence substantially outweighed its probative value. The Court rejects each of these contentions.

         I.

         Williams argues article I, section 18(c), on its face, violates due process[5] because it allows admission of evidence of prior criminal acts in the prosecution's case-in-chief to prove a defendant has the propensity to commit the charged crime. Williams must bear a heavy burden to prevail on this claim because there is "a strong presumption in favor of [the amendment's] validity." Wilson v. Washington Cty., 247 S.W. 185, 187 (Mo. 1922). Williams can overcome this presumption only by demonstrating the admission of propensity evidence pursuant to the amendment - in any case and under any circumstances - violates due process. See State v. Jeffrey, 400 S.W.3d 303, 308 (Mo. banc 2013) (a party raising a facial challenge must show there is "no set of circumstances … under which the [challenged law] may be constitutionally applied").

         To prove the amendment violates due process, Williams must show that admitting propensity evidence pursuant to the amendment "offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental." Montana v. Egelhoff, 518 U.S. 37, 43 (1996) (citation omitted). To make such a showing, Williams must demonstrate a rule forbidding the use of propensity evidence in prosecutions for sex offenses committed against minors is a "fundamental principle of justice." Id. Historical practice is this Court's primary guide in deciding whether there is such a rule and whether that rule is a "fundamental principle of justice." Id. "Judges are not free, in defining 'due process, ' to impose … our 'personal and private notions' of fairness and to 'disregard the limits that bind judges in their judicial function.'" United States v. Lovasco, 431 U.S. 783, 790 (1977) (quoting Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 170 (1952)).

         As a starting point, it is safe to say a general prohibition against the use of propensity evidence in criminal cases has been firmly engrained in American jurisprudence throughout much of the nation's history.[6]

Courts that follow the common-law tradition almost unanimously have come to disallow resort by the prosecution to any kind of evidence of a defendant's evil character to establish a probability of his guilt. Not that the law invests the defendant with a presumption of good character, but it simply closes the whole matter of character, disposition and reputation on the prosecution's case-in-chief. The State may not show defendant's prior trouble with the law, specific criminal acts, or ill name among his neighbors, even though such facts might logically be persuasive that he is by propensity a probable perpetrator of the crime. The inquiry is not rejected because character is irrelevant; on the contrary, it is said to weigh too much with the jury and to so overpersuade them as to prejudge one with a bad general record and deny him a fair opportunity to defend against a particular charge. The overriding policy of excluding such evidence, despite its admitted probative value, is the practical experience that its disallowance tends to prevent confusion of issues, unfair surprise and undue prejudice.

Michelson v. United States, 335 U.S. 469, 475-76 (1948) (citation and footnotes omitted). Since Michelson, the Supreme Court has continued to praise the common law tradition of excluding propensity evidence, e.g., Old Chief v. United States, 519 U.S. 172, 180-82 (1997), though it has never squarely held due process forbids the admission of propensity evidence in the prosecution's case-in-chief, e.g., Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 75 n.5 (1991).

         But even if this Court were to conclude the general ban against propensity evidence is "so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental, " Egelhoff, 518 U.S. at 43, this would not aid Williams's argument. Article I, section 18(c) does not purport to allow the use of propensity evidence in all criminal cases. Instead, the amendment only allows the use of such evidence "in prosecutions for crimes of a sexual nature involving a victim under eighteen years of age." The historical practice regarding the use of propensity evidence in these limited circumstances weighs decidedly against Williams. See LeMay, 260 F.3d at 1025 (historical practice has routinely, if not uniformly, allowed the use of propensity evidence in such circumstances).

         The practice of admitting evidence of the defendant's prior sexual misconduct for purposes of proving the defendant's propensity to commit the sex offense with which he was charged has long been a feature of American law. See People v. Jenness, 5 Mich. 305, 320 (1858) ("[C]ourts in several of the states [have] shown a disposition to relax the rule [barring propensity evidence] in cases where the offense consist[ed] of illicit intercourse between the sexes."). See also Leonard, supra, § 3.3.6 at 145-55 (examining sex offense cases and concluding some nineteenth century courts "almost certainly violated the ban on character as circumstantial evidence of conduct" in such cases); Thomas J. Reed, Reading Gaol Revisited: Admission of Uncharged Misconduct Evidence in Sex Offender Cases, 21 Am. J. Crim. L. 127, 168-69 (1993).[7]

         By the early part of the 20th century, a significant number of state courts allowed the introduction of evidence of sexual misconduct between a defendant and his victim (of any age) for the purpose of proving the defendant's propensity to commit the sex offense with which he was charged. See, e.g., Reed, supra, at 169-82. See also L.S. Tellier, Annotation, Admissibility, in Prosecution for Sexual Offense, of Evidence of Other Similar Offenses, 167 A.L.R. 565 (1947) (collecting authorities). At the time, this rule was characterized as a well-recognized exception to the general ban on propensity evidence. For example, in State v. King, 119 S.W.2d 277, 283 (Mo. 1938), this Court explained the admission of a defendant's prior sexual misconduct with the victim for propensity purposes is "almost universally … allowed in prosecutions for crimes involving the sexual relation, such as adultery, incest, lewdness, rape, seduction, and sodomy." See also People v. Swift, 138 N.W. 662, 666-67 (Mich. 1912) (explaining that a "long recognized and well established" exception to the "rule that the prosecution may not prove another and distinct offense of the same kind for the purpose of rendering it more probable that [the defendant] committed the ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.