UNCHARGED CONDUCT OCCURRING AFTER CHARGED CONDUCT MUST SHARE UNIQUE SIGNATURE FEATURES TO BE ADMISSIBLE AT TRIAL
The PA Superior Court has held in Com. v. Semenza, L., No. 531 MDA 2014 (November 2, 2015), that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to allow evidence of defendant’s uncharged sexual conduct with an adult female subordinate that occurred after the alleged conduct for which he was on trial where the uncharged sexual conduct did not involve features so unique and similar to the charged offenses so as to reflect the defendant’s “signature” offense.
Lawrence Semenza, captain of the Old Forge Fire Department and chief of the Old Forge Police Department, was accused of committing various sexual offenses against a minor, N.B., a volunteer firefighter, in 2004-05.
At the trial – and over Semenza’s objection – the trial court permitted the Commonwealth to present M.K.S.’s testimony about a sexual relationship Semenza had with her in 2007-2008 as “common scheme” evidence under Pa. Rule of Evidence, Rule 404(b).
Semenza testified in his own defense. He denied penetrating N.B. digitally as well as having indecent contact with her, exposing himself to her, or kissing her. He also denied other witnesses’ testimony that he shopped for lingerie with N.B. and that he kissed N.B. romantically or groped her in a sexual manner. He admitted, however, that he had a sexual relationship with M.K.S.
A jury found Semenza guilty of corruption of minors and failure to report suspected child abuse but acquitted him of unlawful contact with a minor, indecent exposure and indecent assault.
Whether the trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of Semenza’s sexual relationship with an adult female, M.K.S., which reportedly occurred after his alleged crimes against a minor, N.B.?
The Superior Court held that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to allow evidence of Semenza’s relationship with M.K.S. under the common scheme exception to Pa. Rule of Evidence, Rule 404(b). The Superior Court also concluded that introduction of this evidence prejudiced Semenza’s defense.
Generally, the court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence. Pa. Rule of Evidence, Rule 403.
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. Pa. Rule of Evidence, Rule 404(b)(1). Such evidence may be admissible for another purpose, however, such as proving the existence of a common scheme, establishing an individual’s motive, intent, or plan, or identifying a criminal defendant as the perpetrator of the offense charged. Pa. Rule of Evidence, Rule 404(b)(2).
In short, common scheme evidence is admissible where the crimes are so related that proof of one tends to prove the others.
Uncharged conduct is not admissible to prove a common scheme except when it shares unique features with the charged offenses that reflect the defendant’s “signature”. General similarities or insignificant similarities are insufficient; “more is required than the mere repeated commission of the same general class of crime.”
Certain general similarities existed between Semenza’s relationships with N.B. and with M.K.S.: Semenza was substantially older than both females, hired both females after interviewing them, and was their superior in the workplace. These similarities, however, were not sufficiently unique to constitute Semenza’s “signature”. In fact, the Superior Court found that the differences between Semenza’s relationships with N.B. and M.K.S. were more pronounced than their similarities.
Because many of the alleged similarities between Semenza’s treatment of N.B. and M.K.S. were either generic or exaggerated, and because there are many dissimilarities in Semenza’s treatment of these individuals, the Court concluded that the evidence of Semenza’s relationship with M.K.S. was inadmissible under the common scheme exception to Rule 404(b).
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