In criminal proceedings, the State often attempts to use evidence of “similar transactions” against a defendant. This typically comes in the form of the State introducing evidence at trial of a defendant’s prior crimes to help prove that defendant’s guilt.
Under O.C.G.A. § 24-4-404(b), evidence of other acts can be introduced by the prosecution to prove a defendant’s “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.” This type of evidence is only admissible if the State shows:
“(1) that it seeks to introduce the evidence not to raise an improper inference as to the defendant’s character but for some proper purpose; (2) that there is sufficient evidence to establish that the defendant committed the independent offense; and (3) that there is a sufficient connection or similarity between the independent offense and the crime charged so that proof of the former tends to prove the latter.” Amica v. State, 704 S.E.2d 831 (Ga.App. 2010).
More specifically, however, O.C.G.A. § 24-4-413 provides that “evidence of the accused’s commission of another offense of sexual assault shall be admissible and may be considered for its bearing on any matter to which it is relevant.”
This means that while evidence of other acts is admissible in all types of criminal cases, it is most liberally extended in the area of sexual offenses. This presents an issue for defendants at trial because it potentially opens the door to every allegation anyone ever made against the defendant regardless of whether the allegation was reported to the police or whether the defendant was ever prosecuted. This often leads to the admission of uncorroborated and unreliable allegations that the defendant never had a prior opportunity to disprove.
Similar transaction evidence can be one of the largest hurdles facing a criminal defendant. Although the judge tells the jury that all this evidence about the other crime cannot be used to determine the guilt for the crime that the defendant is on trial for, that is not a reality. Evidence of prior crimes will almost always create some bias in the minds of jurors.
The law surrounding similar transaction evidence is complex, but there are ways a skilled attorney can ensure this type of evidence is excluded from trial. Early in the case, criminal defense attorneys must identify potential evidence of other acts and investigate these allegations just as thoroughly as the allegations in the indictment. Even though the defendant is technically only on trial for the charges in the indictment, the defense must effectively disprove or exclude evidence of prior allegations and crimes.