The Second Department, reversing defendant’s conviction in this child sex abuse prosecution, determined that the trial court should not have allowed the prosecution to present all evidence of defendant’s alleged prior sexual abuse of children after defense counsel asked complainants whether they had hired a lawyer and were suing the defendant-teacher and the school district based upon defendant’s alleged sexual abuse of children. Re-direct should have been limited to only the evidence necessary to clarify and explain the reasons for the witness’s hiring a lawyer and bringing a lawsuit. The Second Department also noted that the trial judge should have participated in the readback of testimony and the harmless error analysis is not applicable:
… [D]efense counsel asked questions regarding the civil actions in an attempt to impeach credibility and establish that a motivation for some of the complainants’ testimony against the defendant was monetary gain or a pecuniary interest. This line of inquiry did not open an unfettered passageway for the People to elicit extensive and prejudicial evidence regarding alleged uncharged complaints. The extraneous testimony of alleged uncharged complaints did not serve to explain or clarify whether the civil actions provided certain complainants with a financial incentive to testify.
Moreover, the admission of evidence of alleged uncharged complaints violated the basic principle underlying Molineux and its progeny that “a criminal case should be tried on the facts and not on the basis of a defendant’s propensity to commit the crime charged …”. …
The Court of Appeals has explained that “if in any instance, an appellate court concludes that there has been such error of a trial court, such misconduct of a prosecutor, such inadequacy of defense counsel, or such other wrong as to have operated to deny any individual defendant his fundamental right to a fair trial, the reviewing court must reverse the conviction and grant a new trial, quite without regard to any evaluation as to whether the errors contributed to the defendant’s conviction” … . People v Watts, 2019 NY Slip Op 07426, Second Dept 10-16-19