In 2008, thirty-one people were the victims of homicide in the state of Maine. Even more startling: nineteen of these homicides stemmed from domestic violence, possibly the largest number of domestic-violence-related killings in the state's history. This means that nearly 70 percent of Maine's homicides in 2008 were the result of domestic violence. Amendments made in 2007 (and implemented in February 2008) to Maine's Criminal Code have criminalized particular instances of domestic violence as “enhanced” crimes of violence. This allows prosecutors to consider “prior acts” of domestic abuse when deciding how to charge a criminal defendant accused of a domestic-violence-related crime. These new laws additionally provide that prosecutors may introduce evidence of prior acts of domestic violence in the sentencing phase of an adjudication, provided that the defendant has either been found guilty by trial or has plead guilty. However, enhanced sentences and the allowance of evidence of prior acts into sentencing considerations does little to ensure that more batterers are actually convicted of domestic violence crimes. Under the revised Criminal Code, evidence of prior acts of domestic violence has the ability to impact only those batterers who are prosecuted successfully, or who decide to plead guilty. At trial, however, evidence of a batterer's prior acts of violence against his victim cannot be admitted, as they are generally prohibited by Maine Rule of Evidence 404. While the prosecutor and the sentencing judge have access to such evidence, the most important actors in a jury trial--the jurors--are not allowed to hear such evidence, view the charged crime in the context of an abusive relationship, and then render a decision. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which promulgates and has power to amend its Rules of Evidence, could help address this evidentiary gap between charging and sentencing by amending its Rules of Evidence to allow for prior acts of violence to be admissible in domestic-violence-related prosecutions under the exception of acts which tend to show relationship between the parties. Amending the Rules of Evidence to construe prior acts of relationship to include a host of behaviors within the domestic violence context would help revive some of the power of the original legislation by recognizing that domestic violence is unique and that reducing the crime of domestic violence to a particularized incident fails to reflect the realities of battering. Several states already have adopted similar evidentiary proposals-but, as we will see, in a different theoretical framework-because of compelling interests and public policy considerations in ensuring the effective criminal prosecution of batterers. Domestic violence prosecutions often are hampered by a host of evidentiary issues, which have become all-the-more pronounced given the United States Supreme Court's recent decisions in Crawford v. Washington and Giles v. California. Evidence-based domestic violence prosecutions, such as those implemented by the Cumberland County District Attorney's office, would benefit from allowing prior specific acts during the guilt phase of the trial and as additional leverage for prosecutors during plea negotiations with the accused batterer. Until our criminal code can reflect accurately the realities of domestic violence-an opportunity lost during the code approval process with the Criminal Law Advisory Commission in 2007--the best hope victims and prosecutors have for making domestic-violence-related charges “stick” is to allow the introduction of prior acts evidence to contextualize the specified incidents criminalized by the latest code amendments. This Comment argues that by not allowing jurors to consider incidents of domestic violence within their proper context, domestic violence will never be truly criminalized in our State.
Tina H. Nadeau,
Opportunity Lost, Opportunity Found: A Proposal to Amend Maine's Rule of Evidence 404 to Admit "Prior Acts" Evidence in Domestic Violence Prosecutions,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol62/iss1/13