The Colorado Court of Appeals overturned a man's conviction for sexually assaulting his young daughter, ruling that the trial court impermissibly introduced testimony of the defendant’s long-standing physical abuse of the girl.
“Reading through the trial transcript, one might easily forget that defendant was on trial for sexual assault and believe he was also on trial for charges of child abuse,” wrote Judge Gilbert M. Román for the panel on Thursday.
Prosecutors alleged that Jeremy Neal Yachik, a former Berthoud police officer, sexually assaulted his daughter in their home in 2010. The daughter was in eighth grade at the time, and Yachik told her that he would rape her if she said anything of the encounter. Another instance of fondling occurred when she was in ninth grade. In 2014, the girl told Yachik’s ex-girlfriend, with whom she was living, about the assaults.
A jury convicted Yachik in 2016 on two counts of sexual assault on a child and he received sentences ranging from 16 years to life in prison for each conviction.
Yachik appealed, arguing that the “horrific acts of child abuse” prosecutors presented to the jury were irrelevant, given they did not involve sexual contact. Further, the defense believed the evidence encouraged jurors to convict him based on past misconduct and their perceptions of his character. The prosecution countered that such evidence was crucial to informing jurors’ understanding of why the daughter waited to report the assaults and the control that Yachik exerted over her.
He had previously pleaded guilty to child abuse based on a video of him kicking and hitting his daughter for taking carrots out of the refrigerator without permission. The Larimer County District Court admitted as evidence the carrot video and testimony from the daughter about her copious physical abuse, which included food deprivation, being pepper sprayed, choked and having her hands bound.
Yachik’s ex-girlfriend also testified about her fear that he would kill his daughter.
Judge Gregory M. Lammons, in admitting the evidence, noted that “family dynamics and interactions between the Defendant and alleged victim are relevant to give context to the jury.” In his instructions to the jury, he reminded them that Yachik was not on trial for child abuse, but gave no specific indication about what they were to do with the information.
Román acknowledged that contextual evidence, known as res gestae, is acceptable in trials, but only if it is relevant and does not have a net prejudicial effect.
“We are not persuaded that the physical abuse evidence was admissible as res gestae of the charged sexual assaults,” he wrote, because it was not “necessary to complete the story.”
The appellate panel pointed to the daughter’s testimony, observing that she did not link the physical abuse to the sexual abuse. Furthermore, the court did not find Yachik physically abused his daughter in connection with the sex assault. She testified, rather, that she did not report to police because she was unsure where she would live, she was ashamed, and Yachik told her not to say anything.
The court concluded the evidence of physical abuse, including the prosecutor’s comment to the jury that “that’s what her daily life was” likely had an effect on the verdict. It ordered a new trial for Yachik.
In doing so, it warned against allowing the types of comments the prosecutor made in closing arguments in the first trial, namely that the defendant and his lawyers had “groomed” the jury — a reference to the process by which abusers gain access to victims. The appellate judges believed the remarks crossed the line by offering a commentary about the jurors, rather than the case.
“Essentially, the prosecutor argued that, if the jury believed [the] defendant, it was only because he had succeeded in grooming them. Who among us, after all, wants to be accused of being controlled and groomed by a criminal defendant on trial?” wrote Román. “These comments were frequent and improper.”
The case is People v. Yachik. The attorney general's office, which handled the appeal, declined to offer a statement. The Eighth Judicial District originally prosecuted the case, and said on Thursday that it would consult with the attorney general's office about whether to appeal the ruling.