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Court of Criminal Appeals: Domestic Violence Suspects May Cross-Examine Accusers About Child Custody Petitions

Domestic violence cases are often intertwined with child custody disputes. Indeed, there are situations where one parent may falsely accuse the other parent of domestic violence in order to gain the “upper hand” in a custody case. But even when that is not the case, an accuser or witness’ motives in testifying against a defendant may still be relevant to a determination of guilt.

Court Reaffirms Constitutional Right Despite Ruling Error “Harmless” in Houston Case

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently issued a major decision on this point. In Jones v. State, Harrison County prosecutors charged the defendant with assault on a family member. Specifically, the state said the defendant assaulted his longtime girlfriend “by striking her with his hand.”

The girlfriend did not testify at the defendant’s trial. However, the girlfriend’s mother offered testified as to the events in question. The mother told the jury that an argument began while the three of them were watching a movie. Although the argument ended with each party going to separate rooms, the mother testified things heated up again later, which led to the defendant hitting the girlfriend in the face.

The defendant also testified. His account of the events largely matched that of the girlfriend’s mother. But the key difference was the defendant maintained he acted in self-defense. That is to say, the defendant testified the girlfriend approached him the second time to “pick a fight.” He said he ignored her, but she proceeded to “karate kick” his phone away from him. In response, he admitted to slapping the girlfriend in her face.

Prior to trial, the defense asked the trial judge for permission to question the girlfriend’s mother about her then-pending petition to take terminate the parental rights of both the defendant and the girlfriend to their common child. The judge denied the motion, citing a lack of relevance. After the jury convicted the defendant, he appealed, arguing he was deprived of his constitutional right to cross-examine the mother–the key witness against him–as to her possible motives for testifying in the case, i.e., her petition to take custody of the defendant’s child.

An intermediate court of appeals sided with the defendant and held he was entitled to a new trial. But on a further appeal by the prosecution, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed the trial judge violated the defendant’s constitutional rights. But it held the judge’s error was harmless “beyond a reasonable doubt” and therefore reinstated his conviction.

Essentially, the Court said it was reasonable for the defense to cross-examine the mother for “potential bias.” But given the other evidence introduced at trial–including the defendant’s own admission he struck the girlfriend–it was unlikely the jury’s verdict would have changed had it learned about the mother’s child custody petition. In other words, the Court said it was “confident beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would have rejected [the defendant’s] self-defense claim even had it been made aware of the more particularized reasons to question [the mother’s] motives in testifying.”

Speak with a Houston Domestic Violence Defense Lawyer Today

Despite the outcome for this particular defendant, the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision reaffirms an important constitutional principle–individuals accused of domestic violence have the right to fully cross-examine the motives of their accusers and other witnesses against them. Equally important, cases like these emphasize the critical importance of working with an experienced Houston criminal defense lawyer. If you have been accused of domestic or family violence and need to speak with an attorney, call the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today at (281) 280-0100 .