Court: Rape shield law doesn’t protect child victim from testifying about past abuse

By: - November 19, 2021 11:24 am

The Iowa Judicial Building. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Judicial Branch)

Iowa’s rape shield law cannot be used to protect a 10-year-old victim from cross-examination about her past relationship with a second abuser, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled.

The court said while Iowa’s rape shield law prevents defense lawyers from questioning rape victims about past sexual experience, a Sioux County case provides an exception to that prohibition because it resulted in the defendant losing his right to confront witnesses against him.

The case involves a young girl who, between 2016 and 2018, was 8 to 10 years old when she was allegedly sexually abused, separately and independently, by two individuals: a 60-year-old relative, Michael Montgomery, and the teenage son of her mother’s live-in boyfriend.

Court records indicate that in May 2018, the girl told a school guidance counselor of the alleged abuse by both individuals, and the matter was reported to the Iowa Department of Human Services and to police.

The teenage boy admitted the conduct and was charged with sexual abuse as part of a delinquency proceeding. In a videotaped police interview, Montgomery admitted only to unintentional sexual contact with the girl, and when a friend later confronted him, he allegedly said he “didn’t do anything that (she) didn’t initiate first.”

Montgomery was charged with sexual abuse in the second degree and lascivious acts with a child.

Before trial, Montgomery’s lawyer argued that under an exception to Iowa’s rape shield law, he should be permitted to present evidence of the victim’s sexual abuse by the teenager, arguing that it demonstrated the girl may have made up the allegations against him to protect the teenager.

The trial court disagreed and excluded the evidence, ruling the probative value of the evidence did not outweigh the danger of unfair prejudice in the case.

Prosecutors then called the boy as a witness to testify that the girl had told him of Montgomery’s abuse. No mention was made of the boy’s own sexual abuse of the girl, and Montgomery’s lawyer was barred from raising the issue during cross-examination of him and other trial witnesses.

The jury found Montgomery guilty of sexual abuse in the second degree and not guilty of lascivious acts with a child. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison with a mandatory minimum of 17 years.

Montgomery appealed, arguing, among other things, that the district court erred in relying on Iowa’s rape shield law to exclude evidence of sexual abuse by the teenager who testified against him.

The Iowa Court of Appeals sided with prosecutors on that issue and the case then went to the Iowa Supreme Court, which agreed with Montgomery as to the rape shield law.

“The defendant should have been allowed to cross-examine (the victim) and the teenager about their relationship as a source of her age-inappropriate sexual knowledge and their bias or motive to testify against the defendant,” the Iowa Supreme Court ruled. “Excluding that evidence violated the defendant’s rights under the confrontation and due-process clauses.”

In its review of the case, the justices said the purpose of Iowa’s rape shield law is to protect the privacy of victims and limit evidence of their other sexual behavior, but that the law can be trumped by a defendant’s rights to confront adverse witnesses at trial.

The court noted that the victim’s testimony made clear she possessed a certain level of sexual knowledge unusual for a girl her age and that evidence of abuse by the teenager would have rebutted any inference that this knowledge could only have come from Montgomery.

“We conclude Montgomery should have been allowed to introduce evidence of (the teenager’s) contemporaneous, similar abuse to explain (the victim’s) age-inappropriate knowledge, and thereby rebut the inference that Montgomery’s abuse was the source of her knowledge,” the court ruled. “Excluding evidence of (the teenager’s) abuse presented a misleadingly incomplete picture to the jury.”

“Montgomery should have been allowed to cross-examine” both the victim and her teenage abuser about their “sexual relationship,” the court added, vacating the Iowa Court of Appeals decision on the rape shield issue, reversing the district court’s judgment, and remanding the case for a new trial.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.