Law School Case Brief
Leach v. Commonwealth - 571 S.W.3d 550 (Ky. 2019)
Ky. R. Evid. 404(b) provides that evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may be admissible if offered for some other purpose. Because the degree of the potential prejudice associated with evidence of this nature is significantly higher, exceptions allowing evidence of collateral criminal acts must be strictly construed. As a result, Rule 404(b) is exclusionary in nature. The provision offers no easy formula for resolution of issues that are inherently difficult and that require a very careful balancing of competing interests. With no black-letter rules, bright lines, or shortcuts to guide the users of Rule 404(b), the need for careful analysis and reasoned judgment is absolutely essential. The admissibility of Rule 404(b) evidence is within the discretion of the trial court.
In 2014, Misty S. reported to police that defendant Ronnie Leach had sexually assaulted her from approximately 1985 to 1988. At that time, Leach and Misty S.'s aunt, Janet Welch, were married. These assaults occurred over a period of years, when numerous members of the family were gathered at Leach's home. She disclosed that Leach kissed her and fondled her breasts. He digitally penetrated her on a number of occasions. He forced her to touch his penis. He performed oral sex on her, and he forced her to perform oral sex on him. These incidents occurred both outside of Leach's house, in the woods at the back of his property, and also inside of his house, in a bedroom and a laundry room. When they would occur in the woods at the back of Leach's property, they occurred while playing a game called "taxi." During the course of this game, various people would pile into an old car and drive it around the property. The driver would make various stops around the property, dropping off different combinations of people, returning a few minutes later to pick them back up. Leach would sexually assault Misty S. when the two of them were dropped off alone while waiting for the "taxi" to return to pick them up. Misty S. did not report this abuse until 2014, when she heard that Leach's stepdaughter, April, had also accused him of sexually abusing her. After trial in Kentucky commonwealth court, a jury found Leach guilty of six counts of sexual abuse in the first degree, victim under 12; one count of sexual abuse in the first degree; and four counts of sodomy in the first degree, victim under 12. He was sentenced to life in prison. Leach appealed as a matter of right.
Did the trial court abuse its discretion in allowing the testimony of a prior victim as evidence of modus operandi?
The Kentucky supreme court affirmed Leach's conviction. It held that the trial court did not err in allowing the testimony of a prior victim as evidence of modus operandi under Ky. R. Evid. 404(b), because the two crimes were sufficiently similar in that both girls were of a similar age, the abuse of both progressed from kissing to fondling and Leach secluded the girls in order to perpetuate his abuse by devising games to play in the woods and using a motor vehicle to get them alone. Furthermore, the trial court did not err in allowing testimony regarding Misty S.'s knowledge of allegations of sexual abuse by Leach's stepdaughter against Leach because it explained why the victim waited 30 years before disclosing the abuse, her guilt and desire that such acts never happen again. Lastly, under Ky. R. Evid. 412, the trial court properly excluded evidence that Misty S. made prior allegations of sexual misconduct against another person.
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