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= &n= bsp; &nbs= p; = &n= bsp; ENTRY ORDER
= &n= bsp; &nbs= p; SUPREME COURT DOCKET NO. 2004-263
= &n= bsp; &nbs= p; = &n= bsp; MAY TERM, 2005
State of Vermont = &n= bsp; &nbs= p; = <= /span>} = APPEALED FROM: &= nbsp; }
v. = &n= bsp; &nbs= p; = &n= bsp; } = District Court of Vermont,
} Unit No. = 2, Bennington Circuit
Aaron Ritter &nbs= p; = &n= bsp; &nbs= p; = }
} DOCKET NO= . 48-1-03 Bncr
Trial Judge: David S= untag
= ; &= nbsp; &nb= sp; In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:
Defendant Aaron Ritter appeals from his conviction of aggravated domestic assault af= ter a jury trial. He asserts that = the court erred by admitting evidence of his prior abuse of the victim. We affirm.
January 2003, defendant was charged with first degree aggravated domestic
assault after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend, Tina Baker. According to the affidavit of pro=
cause, defendant threw Baker down on the bed and attempted to hold her dow=
they wrestled. When Baker
In May 2003, Baker wrote a letter to the court, stating that defendant had not physically abused her and asking that the charge against defendant be dropped. At her deposition, = Baker testified that on the day in question, she had “lost it” and g= one after defendant. She suggest= ed that defendant had attacked her in self-defense. She stated that she did not remem= ber being placed in a headlock, and testified that she might have received the bruises on her arms at work. She denied that defendant had hurt her or that she had experienced any pain du= ring the incident.
At trial, the State presented three witnesses—the victim, her mother, a= nd the police officer who had investigated Baker’s complaint. Baker’s mother testified th= at on the morning of January 11, Baker called her crying and hysterical; Baker s= tated that defendant had beat her up. When Baker arrived at her mother’s home, she told her mother = that defendant had grabbed her arm, and put her in a headlock and said he was g= oing to snap her neck. Baker̵= 7;s mother testified that she observed a red “grab mark” on Baker’s arm and redness around the front of her neck. The officer who had taken Baker= 8217;s statement testified that he had observed injuries on Baker’s right a= rm and redness in her neck area. Photographs of Baker, taken after the incident, were admitted into evidence.
trial, Baker testified that on the evening in question, she had gotten ang=
defendant, threw an engagement ring at him, and spit at him. She stated that she then slapped
defendant and he grabbed her arm.
After exchanging words, they wrestled. When she tried to leave, defendant
grabbed her. She later testi=
that defendant placed her in a headlock and threatened to snap her neck.
She stated that she didn’t =
if she felt pain or not, nor did she recall that she had any redness aroun=
neck. Baker acknowledged tha=
called her mother after the incident and told her what had happened. Baker testified that a few days a=
the incident, she had returned to defendant and he had assaulted her
again. Baker acknowledged th=
and defendant had a violent relationship; and she testified to several past
incidents of abuse, including defendant knocking out her tooth, tying her =
kicking her in the ribs, and throwing her down the stairs. Defense counsel did not object=
this testimony. Defendant=
father testified on defendant’s behalf, suggesting that Baker had
attacked defendant and defendant had acted in self-defense. He stated that he had not seen de=
put Baker in a headlock, nor had he heard defendant say that he was going =
snap Baker’s neck. The=
found defendant guilty of first degree aggravated domestic assault, and th=
Defendant argues that the court erred by allowing evidence of his fifteen-year histo= ry of abusing Baker. Defendant mai= ntains that the only purpose of this evidence was to show his character and his propensity to commit the charged crime.&n= bsp; He argues that the trial court violated V.R.E. 403 and V.R.E. 404(b= ), and denied him his right to a fair trial.=
Defendant did not object to the introduction of this evidence at trial, and our revi= ew is for plain error only. “= ;Plain error exists only in exceptional circumstances where a failure to recognize error would result in a miscarriage of justice, or where there is glaring = error so grave and serious that it strikes at the very heart of the defendant= 217;s constitutional rights.” State v. Pelican, 160 Vt. 536, 538-39 (1993) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Defendant= has not demonstrated plain error here.
Evidence of defendant’s prior abuse of Baker was admissible and relevant to portray the history surrounding the parties’ abusive relationship an= d to provide a needed context for the behavior at issue. See State v. Sanders, 168 = Vt. 60, 62 (1998). We explained in <= u>Sanders that “[t]he purpose of establishing defendant’s history of abu= sing the victim is not to show his general character for such abuse, but to pro= vide the jury with an understanding of defendant’s actions on the date in question.” Id.<= span style=3D'mso-spacerun:yes'> The evidence was also relevant = 8220;to put the victim’s recantation of prior statements into context for the jury,” and to provide the jury with an understanding of “why t= he victim is less than candid in her testimony.” Id. at 63. As we stated in Sanders, s= uch evidence allows the jury “to decide more accurately which of the victim’s statements more reliably reflect reality.” Id.
In this case, the jury was faced with a single act of domestic violence. Defendant argued that Baker shoul= d not be believed because she had given inconsistent statements, and he suggested that he had acted in self-defense. Baker herself minimized the incident, testifying that she did not f= eel any pain. The evidence was p= roperly admitted under our reasoning in Sanders. As we explained in that case,
“[a]llegations of a single act of domestic violence, taken out of its situational context= , are likely to seem incongruous and incredible to a jury. Without knowing the history of the relationship between the defendant and the victim, jurors may not believe = the victim was actually abused, since domestic violence is learned, controlling behavior aimed at gaining another’s compliance through multiple incidents.”
173 Vt. at 62 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).
We addressed a similar situation in State v. Hendricks, 173 Vt. 132, 1= 39 (2001). In that case, the jury was presented with a sin= gle act of domestic violence. The de= fendant asserted that he had acted in self-defense, and that the injuries to the v= ictim had occurred either in defending himself or as the result of the victim= 217;s previous accidental fall. We= found no abuse of discretion in the court’s admission of evidence of the defendant’s prior abuse of the victim, explaining that the evidence = was introduced not to show defendant’s propensity to commit abuse but ra= ther “to provide the jury with an understanding of defendant’s acti= ons on the date in question.” Id. (quoting Sanders, 173 Vt. at 62).&= nbsp; We reach a similar conclusion here.
We reject defendant’s assertion that the State engaged in “prosecutorial overkill” in describing the past incidents of abuse. As discussed above, t= he evidence was relevant and admissible, and the record shows that Baker̵= 7;s testimony on this subject was limited, and used by the State for a proper purpose. Compare State v.= Lawton, 164 Vt. 179, 181 (1995) (holding that improper admission of numerous bad a= cts allegedly committed by defendant, punctuated with improper prosecutorial comments about defendant’s character, were potentially so damaging t= hat reversal was required). Defe= nse counsel acknowledged in his closing statement that the law allowed the pri= or incidents of abuse to come before the jury to provide a context for the parties’ relationship, and the court specifically instructed the jury that the evidence could be used only for this purpose. Defendant has not demonstrated pl= ain error. Cf. Hendricks,= 173 Vt. at 140-41 (finding no plain error in trial court’s charge to jury regarding prior bad acts evidence in domestic assault case where court adm= itted evidence to show context of parties’ relationship and issued limiting instructions requiring jury to consider it for that purpose alone).
BY THE COURT:
Paul L. Reiber, Chief Justice
John A. Dooley, Associate Justice
Denise R. Johnson, Associate Justice