Do Rape Shield Laws Forbid Questions about False Allegations?

In February 2001 the United States District Court for the Eastern District issued a ruling in an odd rape case that boiled down to this: do rape shield laws protect accusers from being questioned about previous false allegations of rape that the accuser may have filed?

The case involved Wisconsin resident Jessie L. Redmond who was convicted in 1993 of raping and providing cocaine to a 15-year-old girl. Redmond worked as a counselor at a group home for alcohol- and drug-abusing youths. In December 1992 he was arrested and later convicted after one of these youths claimed that Redmond had supplied her with cocaine and had sex with her.

Redmond’s case took a very odd turn which involved the eventual suspension of his attorney. His original lawyer, Mike Sandy, showed up at the court and passed himself off as the girl’s attorney in order to illegally obtain the girl’s juvenile court file. Among the things that file contained was detailed information about another allegation of rape that the girl had made in early 1992. Police investigated that allegation and determined that it was a false allegation and the girl was charged with contempt of court.

Sandy would eventually have his law license suspended because of that and other incidents. At Redmond’s trial, however, Sandy wanted to ask the girl about the previous false allegation of rape that she had made. The judge in the case, Dennis Flynn, refused to permit that. Although Wisconsin’s rape shield law includes a specific exemption for false allegations, Flynn ruled that the line of questioning about the previous allegation would be prejudicial while having little value for determining the truth of the case against Redmond.

Redmond’s case was then taken up by Howard Eisenberg, the dean of Marquette University Law School. The case ended up in the U.S. District Court which eventually overturned Redmond’s conviction. It noted that since the only evidence against Redmond was the testimony of the girl, the girl’s previous false allegation indeed had probative value. The opinion of that court reads, in part,

But the fact that the girl had led her mother, a nurse, and the police on a wild goose chase for a rapist merely to get her mother’s attention supplied a powerful reason for disbelieving her testimony eleven months later about having sex with another man, by showing that she had a motive for what would otherwise be an unusual fabrication.

And thus the court’s ruling, though ostensibly based on the rape-shield statute, derives no support from that statute. The statute protects complaining witnesses in rape cases (including statutory-rape cases) from being questioned about their sexual conduct, but a false charge of rape is not sexual conduct

Redmond was ordered released by the court. He was somewhat vindicated by the decision, but in the process lost 8 years of his life due to an incredibly bizarre interpretation of a rape shield law — an interpretation that the U.S. District Court dismissed out of hand.

As Attorney Mark Richards, who represented Redmond in his first round of appeals, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “A lot of people will point to this and say it is proof the system works. But it’s not proof that the system works, because this guy has been sitting there (in prison) for 7 1/2 years.”

Sources:

Redmond v. United States. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 99-2333, February 14, 2001.

Court reverses rape case conviction. Tom Kertscher, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 21, 2001.

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