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Court Finds No Evidentiary Error or Verdict Coercion

In State v. Pratt, 2015 VT 89 (August 14, 2015), the Vermont Supreme Court considered – and rejected – several challenges to a Defendant’s conviction for sexual assault with a minor.

Issue: Whether Defendant’s conviction for sexual assault of a minor should be reversed because of the trial court’s alleged errors in admitting inadmissible evidence and coercing a jury verdict.

Holding: The Court affirmed Defendant’s conviction because it did not find that any of the alleged errors had been committed. First, it was not error for the trial court to admit, under VRE 802(a), a letter written by the victim detailing the assault, because the mere fact that no one saw her write the letter did not negate its other indicia of trustworthiness (and, in fact, could be seen as a factor bolstering the letter’s reliability, because it demonstrated lack of outside influence. Second, it was not error for the trial court to admit, under VRE 702, the forensic expert’s testimony regarding his use of software to retrieve the contents of Defendant’s cell phone. Rule 702 and Daubert factors are to be applied flexibly, and the expert’s testimony could be found reliable, even though he didn’t understand the underlying programming of the software, because he had extensive knowledge, training, and experience, in how to use the software. The Court also found the expert’s testimony reliable under VRE 703, and found no break in the chain of custody. Finally, the Court also found that there was no evidence that the trial court judge “coerced” a verdict by telling the jury that, if they did not reach a verdict by 5:30 pm, they would suspend and come back on Monday. The Court noted that this was merely an explanation of what was going to happen, and the judge was clear that the jury members should take all the time they needed.

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