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The Use of “Relationship” Evidence in Texas Criminal Domestic Violence Trials

In most criminal trials, the prosecution cannot introduce evidence of a defendant’s “prior bad acts” to establish their guilt of the charged offense. But Texas law makes a notable exception for domestic violence cases. When the alleged victim of a crime is the defendant’s spouse or dating partner, or a member of their household, Section 38.371(b) of the Code of Criminal Procedure allows jurors to consider “testimony or evidence regarding the nature of the relationship between the actor and the alleged victim.”

In other words, if you are charged with assaulting your spouse, the prosecution could introduce evidence establishing you had a history of committing domestic violence against your spouse, even if you were never charged or convicted of any prior bad acts.

Jury Allowed to Consider Defendant’s Prior Alleged Assault Against Spouse

The Texas 14th District Court of Appeals here in Houston recently rejected a constitutional challenge to Section 38.371(b). The case before the Court, Thomas v. State, involved a defendant charged with “continuous violence against” a family member, specifically his spouse. The charge arose from two incidents in 2018 where the defendant allegedly choked his spouse following an argument.

The defense’s theory at trial was that someone other than the defendant had caused the spouse’s injuries during the alleged 2018 assaults. The prosecution then introduced evidence of a third alleged assault that the defendant committed against his spouse in 2017, for which he was indicted but never tried. The prosecution said this evidence was admissible under Section 38.371(b) to rebut the defense’s theory of the case and establish the violent nature of his relationship with his spouse. The judge allowed the evidence in but instructed the jury that it could only consider the 2017 allegations if it found “beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant did in fact commit the wrongful acts” alleged.

The jury ultimately found the defendant guilty. On appeal, the defendant challenged not only the decision to admit the evidence of the 2017 assault under Section 38.371(b)–he challenged the law itself. He argued the statute violated his constitutional right to “due process” since it allowed the jury to consider evidence of “extraneous offenses” without providing any sort of “balancing test” or “procedural safeguards.”

The 14th District disagreed and upheld the defendant’s conviction. It held that Section 38.371(b) was “rationally related to a legitimate state interest.” That is, the state had a legitimate interest in “explaining why a complainant in a domestic violence case may be uncooperative” and “contextualizing the nature of the relationship” between the accuser and the defendant.

In this case, for instance, the spouse had recanted her initial allegations of domestic violence multiple times prior to the defendant’s trial. This placed the spouse’s credibility in question when she later testified against the defendant. The appellate court said the prosecution was therefore entitled to introduce evidence of the prior alleged act of domestic violence in order to help bolster the credibility of their key witness–and provide the jury with additional context regarding the overall relationship. The Court said none of this violated the defendant’s constitutional right to due process.

Contact Houston Domestic Violence Defense Lawyer Tad Nelson Today

Many people think they can make a domestic violence charge go away by simply convincing the accuser to recant. That is not how it works. So if you are accused of committing a crime against a family or household member, you need to work with an experienced Galveston domestic violence attorney who can represent your interests in court. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today to speak with a lawyer right away.