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Can a Texas Jury “Infer” the Timeline of a Defendant’s Alleged Sexual Abuse?

Many sex offenses and sex crimes have very specific definitions under Texas law. So when a particular offense includes certain elements, it is the prosecutor’s job to prove each element “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Neither the prosecutor nor the judge can ask a jury to “infer” the existence of certain elements without the requisite proof.

Court of Criminal Appeals: Prosecution Failed to Prove 2 Acts of Abuse Before Victim’s 14th Birthday

An April 3 decision from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Griffith v. State, illustrates what we are talking about. The defendant in this case was tried for the offense of “continuous sexual abuse of young child or children,” which is defined in Section 21.02 of the Texas Penal Code as committing “two or more acts of sexual abuse” against a “child younger than 14 years of age” over a period of at least 30 days.

According to the evidence introduced at the defendant’s trial, the defendant’s then-14-year-old daughter told a friend in 2013 that her father “had sexual intercourse with her” on multiple occasions. She later repeated these allegations to several other people, although she later recanted. However, the people she initially reported the sexual abuse to–people known as “outcry witnesses”–did testify at trial.

Under Section 21.02, the prosecution needed to prove that at least two acts of sexual abuse occurred before the alleged victim’s 14th birthday. Here, the daughter turned 14 on April 4, 2013. Prior to recanting, she told the outcry witnesses the abuse occurred between 2012 and 2013. The first act of abuse took place when the defendant was living with his daughter in Dawson, which was well before April 2013. But the subsequent acts of abuse occurred after her father moved to a house in Frost, Texas, which occurred in January 2013.

So in order to find the defendant guilty, the jury had to conclude that a second act of abuse occurred at the Frost residence between January and April 2013, i.e., before the daughter turned 14. Although the jury eventually made that leap and found the defendant guilty, the Court of Criminal Appeals found the timeline did not work. As the Court explained, although the prosecution had submitted a timeline at a pretrial hearing that might add up, “none of this evidence was presented to the jury.” The jury was basically left to “infer” the timeline based on the conflicting testimony of the outcry witnesses, which the Court of Criminal Appeals was not permissible. After all, a jury “cannot make inferences based on evidence that they never heard.”

This did not mean, however, that the defendant was free to go. While the evidence did not support the conviction for “continuous sexual abuse,” it did support a lesser-included offense of sexual assault. The Court of Criminal Appeals therefore “reformed” the judgment to reflect a conviction on that charge, and returned the case to the trial court for sentencing.

Speak with a Houston Sex Crimes Defense Lawyer Today

Even when a person faces heinous accusations such as sexually abusing a child, they still have certain legal and procedural rights the courts must respect. This includes holding the prosecution to the required burden of proof. So if you have been accused of a sexual offense and need assistance from a qualified Galveston or League City criminal defense lawyer in asserting your rights in court, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today.