N.J. Supreme Court: Are IMs Sent From Minor to Adults Admissible?

The Supreme Court of New Jersey is considering whether a man convicted of sexually assaulting his girlfriend’s daughter should have been allowed to introduce sexually explicit instant messages that the girl sent to other men.

In State v. J.A.C., A-102-10, argued Nov. 16, the defense claimed the IMs were relevant to the alleged victim’s credibility, since she first brought the allegation against the defendant after her mother discovered them.

The defendant, identified as J.A.C., began dating the girl’s mother, “Carol,” in December 1998 and would take care of the girl, identified as C.A., while Carol worked nights as a bartender. She and J.A.C. broke up in 2001 when J.A.C. met another woman.

In March 2003, Carol discovered sexually explicit instant messages on C.A.’s computer and questioned her about them. Carol began discussing the possibility of sending her daughter to live with her father in Indiana, an option the girl strenuously objected to.

When C.A. was asked whether anyone had ever touched her inappropriately, she said J.A.C. had done so in 2000, when she was 9 years old, and on at least one other occasion while she was at her computer. She also said he exposed himself to her twice. J.A.C. denied the allegations.

Warren County, N.J., Superior Court Judge John Pursel initially denied J.A.C.’s request to introduce the IMs, by which C.A. had been in contact with 16 men. He said they amounted to evidence of sexual conduct and thus were inadmissible under the Rape Shield Law, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-7f.

Pursel later amended his decision and allowed the defense to refer to the IMs’ existence but said the defense could refer to only seven of the 16 men.

He later admitted into evidence one IM, in which C.A. referred to masturbation, after the state said it planned to introduce evidence that she had been vaginally penetrated.

The jury convicted J.A.C. of multiple counts of sexual assault, and the Appellate Division upheld his conviction and 20-year sentence.

At last week’s arguments, J.A.C.’s attorney, Assistant Deputy Public Defender Michael Jones, told the Court that C.A. invented the story to get herself off the hook with her mother about the IMs.

“C.A. got caught sending IMs to adult males and invented at that time a story that inculpated my client,” Jones said, adding that Pursel abused his discretion in not allowing the introduction of the IMs to impeach credibility.

Justice Barry Albin asked what the jurors knew. Jones said the jury was told only that sexually explicit IMs were sent to several other men.

Justice Anne Patterson asked if it mattered that C.A. was 12 years old at the time.

“The jury would infer that she was in great trouble with the parent,” Jones replied.

Albin asked whether the IMs were so bad in nature that C.A. invented the story about J.A.C. “out of desperation.”

“Precisely. That’s exactly it,” Jones said. “The whole idea of confrontation in the jury system is that the jury gets to hear all the facts.”

But Albin also said the IMs could be used as a form of “character assassination.”

Jones said he understood that, but added that the IMs “develop a full picture … of who the complainant is. That’s very important.”

Patterson noted the Rape Shield Law was designed to protect victims from having certain information about them relayed to the jury. “This was the type of information the Legislature was trying to protect,” she said.

Jones disagreed. “The Rape Shield Law was designed to stop foraging for character information about the victim,” he said. “This was not unscrupulous foraging.”

Deputy Attorney General Mary McAnally said Pursel made the correct decision about the IMs.

“The content of the IMs constituted sexual conduct and are inadmissible under the Rape Shield Law,” McAnally said. “They were properly excluded.”

Albin asked whether they should have been admitted in order for J.A.C. to receive a fair trial and to satisfy the requirement that he be allowed to confront his accuser.

“The jury was not entitled to see them,” McAnally replied. “The jury heard that the victim engaged in explicit communications with 16 men and that the language was shocking.

“All of that exceeded the trial court’s order limiting the testimony to conversations with six men,” she said. “The jury certainly got the point.”

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