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Court Reviews Defendant’s Conviction After Defendant is Voluntarily Absent from Trial

In State v. Stanley, 2015 VT 117 (September 11, 2015), the Vermont Supreme Court upheld a conviction for sexual assault.

Issue: Defendant appealed his conviction arguing that the trial court: (1) erroneously permitted the trial and sentencing to proceed in his absence in violation of Vermont Rule of Criminal Procedure 43(b); (2) erroneously permitted the State to introduce uncharged prior bad acts as evidence; and (3) violated the Double Jeopardy Clause in its imposition of the habitual-offender enhancement.

Holding: (1) The Court held that the defendant was “initially present” under Vermont Rule of Criminal Procedure 43(b) since he was present at the beginning of the trial – that is, the impaneling of the jury. Further, the defendant was, at all times, present at the courthouse and was aware that the proceedings were happening and that he was expected to attend. Defendant waived his right to be present by his voluntary absence from the courtroom. (2) The introduction of the prior bad acts were admissible under Vermont Rule of Evidence 404(b) as they were relevant to the victim’s state of mind, and were found by the trial court to not be unduly prejudicial as they were necessary to understand the victim’s fear of the defendant. Further, the trial court provided the jury with adequate instructions in its consideration of the prior bad acts, protecting the defendant’s constitutional rights. (3) Prior felonies can support a habitual-offender enhancement under 13 V.S.A. § 11. The statute does not create a new offense, but rather defines a new class of individuals who may be subject to an enhanced penalty.

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