7th Circuit Denies Habeas Relief in Sex Abuse Case Where Courts Used Rape Shield Law to Bar Prior Evidence of Relationship Between Defendant and Complainant.

In this case, the defendant when faced with a rape allegation claimed consent and a prior relationship which involved some sexual activity. The prosecution presented a lot of physical evidence that corroborated her claims, including a knife and blood evidence.

The defense filed a motion in limine asking the trial court to permit the defendant to testify to the prior sexual activity. The trial court denied the motion, permitting the defendant to testify to prior romantic relationship, including being in a bed with the complainant, but disallowing evidence on cross of the complainant or direct of the defendant of the exact nature of the purported prior sexual activity. The appellate court reversed and remanded for a new trial. The Wisconsin Supreme Court took the case and reinstated the conviction, concentrating its analysis on the Wisconsin rape shield statute without directly mentioning the constitutional claims of the right ot present a defense or of confrontation.

The Seventh Circuit denied habeas relief (as did the federal magistrate judge), first noting that the court should
apply a Richter standard that requires federal courts to “give the state-court judgment the benefit of any arguments or theories that could have supported the state court’s judgment.” They did so because the Wisconsin Supreme Court cited cases in its opinion that mentioned both statutory and constitutional issues that also denied relief, so the federal courts should presume that the state court addressed the constitutional claim.

Addressing the merits, the Seventh Circuit noted prior precedent that also upheld denial of admission of evidence based on state rape shield statutes. They also noted the evidence the trial court did permit in light of all of the physical evidence. The court decided that the additional evidence regarding the precise sexual activity was of marginal utility given the prejudice to the State in admitting the evidence.

The case is Sarfraz v. Smith; 17-1279.


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