The Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City heard a case Tuesday challenging whether a 2014 state law is constitutional.  The statute allows prior sex crimes to be used in new cases if the victim is under 18 years old.

Travis Williams – image courtesy of the Missouri Department of Corrections

The argument against the law is that it violates due process rights by prejudicing juries against defendants.  The 2015 Cass County conviction of Travis Williams on sodomy charges was the vehicle for debate over the statute in the Supreme Court.

Attorney William Swift said Williams previous crimes were used to bias the jury into thinking he was likely, or had a “propensity”, to commit the same offense against the victim in his trial.

“It was the entire focus of the opening statements,” said Swift. “The jury was instructed that this evidence was to only be considered for propensity, and propensity only.  And it couldn’t be considered for some other purpose.  I think that’s highly prejudicial.”

Federal laws allow previous crimes to be admitted in new cases of sexual assault and child molestation.  But Swift claims they are only allowed to confirm, or corroborate a defendant’s actions, not establish its likelihood.

He mentioned one example in which there was a signature feature of the offender’s activity.  “The evidence was found to be corroborative, because in those situations when the defendant committed his sexual abuse, he had little girls always dressed in bathing suits, so that’s corroboration.”

Arguing for the state, Assistant Attorney General Shaun Mackelprang cited four cases where previous crimes were allowed with the understanding they weren’t only being used to prove likelihood, or propensity.

“Basically, you cannot base a conviction of guilt in the case solely on the fact that the defendant had a prior conviction,” said Mackelprang. “That’s doesn’t mean they can’t consider it for propensity.  In fact, the jury can consider it for any it for any purpose under the federal rules.  And the courts made that plain.”

Mackelprang contends that in the Williams case, jury instructions prevented any bias from being caused by previous crimes.

“(The instructions) require the jury to find, specific elements for each offense beyond a reasonable doubt, before they can find the defendant guilty of the charged offense.  So there really is no risk that the jury is going to find the defendant guilty solely because of the existence of the prior conviction.”

Briefs filed by Williams attorney Swift contained excerpts from the jury selection process.  In one passage, “Many” jury pool members acknowledged that they would convict Travis because of his prior conviction.

During questioning by defense counsel, one prospective juror said “If you are honest in here, it’s going to be hard to separate it (the prior conviction from the present allegations).  The person also said that Travis did not enter with a “level playing field” because of his prior conviction.

Briefs prepared by state attorney Mackelprang describe how over time Williams sexually assaulted his stepdaughter numerous times, beginning when she was eight years old.

The state charged Williams with three counts of first-degree statutory sodomy against his stepdaughter, two before the girl was 12 years old and one before she was 14 years old.

An agreement was made that Williams’ accuser in his previous conviction would not testify at his 2015 trial under the acknowledgement that the conviction itself would play a prominent role instead.

He was convicted on all three counts by the jury in Cass County near Kansas City.  The court sentenced him, as a predatory sexual offender, to concurrent sentences of 50 years in prison with the possibility of parole.  He’s currently incarcerated at the maximum-security Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri.

His attorney is asking the Supreme Court for a new trial under the contention that the law allowing previous crimes into evidence is unconstitutional.

Child advocates say the law helps put sex offenders away for longer periods of time and ultimately protect children.