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Semen-stained pantyhose of an alleged rape victim will be allowed at trial after the Rhode Island Supreme Court found that a lower court judge abused his discretion when he granted the defendant’s motion to suppress that evidence. In overturning Superior Court Judge John F. Sheehan’s ruling, the high court said it was “hard-pressed to fully comprehend from the trial justice’s rather cryptic decision” his basic reasoning for granting the motion to suppress. Prosecutors had appealed Sheehan’s decision when he granted defendant Christopher Barnes’ motion to suppress the introduction of the alleged victim’s pantyhose into evidence. The court noted that when a judge elects to suppress evidence, under Rule 403 of the Rhode Island Rules of Evidence, for reasons that its “potential prejudicial effect on the jury will outweigh its relevancy, we accord deferential review to the trial justice’s discretionary findings that are made in support of his or her decision.” However, the supreme court cited Wells v. Uvex Winter Optical, Inc., 635 A.2d. 1188 (R.I. 1994), saying that although Rule 403 allows discretion by the judge, it “must be exercised sparingly.” “Certainly that evidence was both relevant and probative to establish whether sexual intercourse, consensual or forced, had taken place between the alleged victim and the defendant, whom she had identified as her alleged assailant,” wrote Justice John P. Bourcier for the court in State v. Christopher Barnes, No. 99-469-C.A. “The fact that an act of sexual intercourse did in fact take place was an essential element for the state to prove … “ “The determination of the value of evidence should normally be placed in the control of the party who offers it. Unless evidence is of limited or marginal relevance and enormously prejudicial, the trial justice should not act to exclude it,” the court noted in Wells. ALLEGED ATTACK AT FRAT According to prosecutors, the alleged victim, identified as “Jane Jones” in the decision, attended a fraternity party at Brown University on Oct. 6, 1996. While there, Barnes allegedly invited Jones to go to his brother’s room at the frat house, but she declined. Jones alleges that Barnes followed her into a bathroom and forcibly raped her there. She was able to escape when another guest at the party unexpectedly interrupted the assault. Following a police investigation, Jones identified Barnes as her attacker from a photo array. He was later arrested and charged with first-degree sexual assault. The state Department of Health conducted a test on the pantyhose worn by Jones that night and determined a stain in the crotch area to be semen. However, the tests did not identify the semen as being that of the defendant or any other particular person. Barnes filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that the testing of the pantyhose had depleted the small stain found there and as such he was deprived of the opportunity to conduct further DNA tests. He also filed the motion to suppress, alleging that the state was unable to positively identify the semen as his. Sheehan denied Barnes’ motion to dismiss, but allowed the motion to suppress the pantyhose as evidence. NOT AT ISSUE In rejecting Sheehan’s reasoning for allowing the motion to suppress, the high court noted that he seemed to base his decision on his understanding that the state’s forensic biologists could not determine that the semen found was the defendant’s. In addition, the court pointed to statements made by Jones to police that at no time before the alleged attack did a male ever touch the pantyhose. Consequently, the court concluded, the origin of the semen and its connection to Barnes would be established, not directly by the biologists, but by a jury as fact-finders. “We are satisfied, after considering the scant and rather nebulous analysis provided by the trial justice to support his decision to suppress the state’s evidence, that he improperly exercised his discretion,” the supreme court found. The court went on further to say that whether the state will be able to prove that Barnes was the alleged attacker was not at issue before Sheehan at the time of the motion to suppress. “Simply because evidence of semen found on the pantyhose of victim may later at trial prove to be prejudicial to a defendant does not, ipso facto, render it inadmissible,” the court wrote, citing State v. Young, 743 A.2d 1032, 1036 (R.I. 2000). Young concludes that in any criminal prosecution, the state is entitled to offer, and seek to introduce, all relevant evidence that is probative to prove each of the necessary elements of a crime. On the issue of Barnes’ contention that the pantyhose evidence should be suppressed because the state “destroyed all the evidence doing cumulative, unnecessary tests,” the supreme court disagreed. “It is generally held that the necessary consumption or destruction of the evidence in state crime laboratory tests does not violate the accused’s rights, even though the accused is thus prevented from subjecting any of the hard physical evidence to tests by own expert,” the court noted in citing a secondary legal source, 40 A.L.R. 4th 594, 597 (1985).

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