Vermont Supreme Court preserves sex-assault convictions
BRATTLEBORO - A panel of state Supreme Court justices has upheld the sex-crime convictions of two local men who were sentenced last year to maximum terms of life in prison.
In rulings issued last week, the justices denied the appeals of David Leo Edson and David Piquette. Piquette was sentenced to 10 years to life for a 2011 sex assault at a Brattleboro motel, while Edson received a sentence of 25 years to life in connection with the repeated sexual assault of a juvenile in 2009 in Westminster.
In turning down Edson's appeal, the justices rejected his argument that the jury should not have heard testimony about his violent past and his substance abuse. In fact, the panel pointed out, Edson himself talked about those issues at trial.
"Defendant on direct examination testified extensively about his prior convictions, his prior violent acts and his prior drug use," the justices wrote. "Defendant's apparent strategy was to honestly admit to illegal behavior so as to give credence to his denials of sexually assaulting (the victim)."
The victim in Edson's case told police that, while she was living in Westminster in 2009, Edson repeatedly sexually assaulted her in her home. The assaults happened when she was 10; the victim reported the incidents when she was 12 and then testified at Edson's trial in March 2013 in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division.
Edson was convicted on two counts of aggravated sexual assault and one count of lewd/lascivious conduct with a child. In August, he was sentenced to serve 25 years to life in prison, with Judge David Suntag labeling Edson's conduct "almost beyond comprehension."
In an appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court, Edson made two arguments: He claimed the trial court committed "plain error" in allowing the evidence of his past behavior and in allowing admission of a recorded interview of the victim by investigators.
As for whether evidence of Edson's past behavior was irrelevant or amounted to "impermissible character evidence," Justices Marilyn Skoglund, Beth Robinson and Geoffrey Crawford wrote that Edson never objected to the disclosure of such information -- either in pretrial proceedings or during trial.
Also, "the evidence at trial included testimony from (the victim's) mother, the defendant's girlfriend and (the victim's) brother," all of whom "described acts of violence committed by defendant and testified to defendant's use of illegal drugs," the justices wrote.
Additionally, there was the testimony by Edson himself.
"There are no grounds for reversal," the justices wrote.
In reference to the victim's interview, which was recorded out of state after she moved, Edson had argued that the statement did not meet legal standards for the introduction of such evidence.
But the justices found that Edson did not object to the prosecution's notice, at a December 2012 status conference, that the recording would be offered at trial.
"In this case, defendant's comments to the court went beyond simply failing to object," the justices wrote. "Defendant agreed that (the victim's) recorded interview with Utah police was admissible and that no (evidentiary) hearing was necessary."
"Further," the ruling adds, "defendant relied on the interview at trial to support his argument that (the victim's) various accounts of the alleged assaults were nonspecific and not credible."
The Piquette case involved a much different set of circumstances: He was arrested in December 2011 after a female victim reported that he held her against her will and sexually assaulted her at the Unique Vermont Motel and Gift Shop on Marlboro Road.
Piquette was convicted of sexual assault and domestic assault following trial in November 2012. In August 2013, he was sentenced to serve 10 years to life in prison.
Piquette's appeal claimed that the trial court should not have denied his motion for a mistrial, a motion that had centered on testimony from a Brattleboro police officer.
The officer, in describing his duties at the department, said his responsibilities were to "investigate pretty much any and all -- any type offenses which require a little bit more ... investigation as compared to what the patrol officers would do, serious crimes such as homicides, sexual assaults, child sexual assaults, a lot of the major felony-type cases."
Piquette's attorney asked for a mistrial, arguing that the felony reference "could suggest to the jury the potential sentence defendant might receive if convicted." The trial judge denied that motion.
In appealing to the Supreme Court, Piquette argued that the police officer's testimony "bolstered the importance of the case, not only telling the jury that it is a felony, which most will necessarily understand to carry heightened punishment, but also telling the jury that it is so serious it warrants special attention."
But the three Supreme Court justices disagree, finding "no abuse of discretion" by the trial judge.
"As the trial court explained, the fact that the officer investigated 'serious' crimes came as no surprise to the jury, which presumably recognized this as a serious case," the justices wrote. "The court found no harm to either side from such comment, noting that it did not suggest anything about defendant's character and it likely prompted the jury to pay more attention to the trial."
The justices added this: "The fact that defendant was acquitted of kidnapping does not support defendant's claim of prejudice. As the state points out, it equally tends to show the absence of prejudice."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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