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Does Prior Sexual Conduct Affect a Rape Case?

The unfortunate reality of many rape cases is they often boil down to one person’s word against another. Verdicts are dependent on the believability and consistency of the accuser’s story. When faced with little or no physical evidence, testimony may be the only weapon to help prove the accused’s innocence.

Years ago, someone accused of rape could have swayed a jury by testifying as to the accuser’s prior sexual conduct. However, given how public opinions concerning sex, sexuality, and consent have shifted in recent years, an accuser’s prior history of consensual sexual activity can no longer be allowed to help plead the alleged rapist’s case. Several laws, also known as Rape Shield Laws, now exist to protect the rights of accusers in rape cases.

HOW RAPE SHIELD LAWS WORK

In the past, people accused of rape were sometimes able to use the accuser’s sexual history as a means to discredit the plaintiff before a jury. The defendant would claim the accuser consented to the act in question based on prior instances of consensual sexual contact, either between the two parties or between the accuser and others outside the case. The primary function of Rape Shield Laws is to only allow credible evidence and testimony relevant to the case to be entered into trial proceedings.

Previous Sexual Conduct Does Not Equal Consent

Just because a person agreed to have sexual contact with another person in the past does not mean consent is automatically given every time. Under California Law, a defendant in a rape case cannot use evidence of the accuser performing similar sexual acts with others in the past as proof of consent. However, the defendant’s attorney is permitted to enter evidence of sexual conduct between the accused and the accuser to help prove consent.

Lack of Credibility Due to Previous Sexual Conduct

As previously stated, rape trials often wind up being cases of “he said, she said.” The accuser’s sexual history cannot be entered as evidence to discredit the claim of rape. The accused’s attorney can only enter evidence of the accuser’s sexual history if it provides evidence of a predisposition toward dishonesty or motivation to lie, or helps prove a history of inconsistent statements.

Sexual History That Undermines Physical Evidence

If an accuser’s sexual history can help prove another person is responsible for the acts in question, the information may be deemed viable as evidence. For example, if the accuser had sexual contact with an individual other than the accused near the same time as the incident in question, that evidence may prove the accused’s innocence and shed light on the true perpetrator.

Variation in State Law

Rape laws vary by state, and some states go so far as to completely bar evidence that hinges on the accuser’s sexual history. The only inquiries or evidence permitted must be relevant to the case at hand. Some states do not permit defendants to offer any evidence of the accuser’s sexual history in front of a jury. If the defense truly believes the information is relevant to the case, an “offer of proof” must be presented to the judge outside the courtroom.

If the judge deems the evidence relevant, the court can order the victim to testify to the evidence in question. The evidence must be relevant to the extent that it outweighs any potential sway it may hold over the jury.

If you find yourself involved in any rape case, on either side of the table, it’s vital to connect with a rape attorney who knows and understands the rape laws for your state and is able to determine what evidence can be used in trial.