A man convicted of aggravated child molestation on Aug. 16 was granted a new trial date – but it wasn’t at his request.
Superior Court Judge David Roper ordered the post-verdict mistrial Tuesday after determining that he should not have allowed a physician to testify during Laquaine Chapman’s trial or permitted jurors to view “highly prejudicial” photos of the victim’s medical examination. He also issued “sua sponte,” or of his own volition, a new civil trial date to determine Chapman’s mental competency.
Chapman was indicted in January on two counts of aggravated child molestation and one count of child molestation after a 7-year-old girl accused him in November of sodomy. A jury found him guilty of all counts after a two-day trial.
Before the criminal trial, a civil trial was held to determine whether Chapman was mentally able to stand trial. A state psychologist evaluated Chapman in April and found him mentally competent.
However, the psychologist’s report also states that Chapman has a history of mental illness, including bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. A hospital examination also found that he has a history of seizures caused by a cyst in his brain, according to the order.
At the trial to determine Chapman’s competency, his mother testified to the history of seizures, delusional behavior and “long-term aberrant mental and behavioral history.” When the defendant testified, he said he did not know the meaning of an oath, but eventually said it meant he had to tell the truth. The civil trial jury found him competent to stand trial.
“From this judge’s observation, the defendant did not appear to sufficiently understand the proceedings in order to provide meaningful assistance to his counsel,” Roper wrote.
In ordering a mistrial, Roper presented issues he had as the trial judge with the testimony of a gynecologist who examined the victim. There was “considerable debate” before jury selection and opening statements about allowing the witness’s testimony.
“The court was concerned that the events to which the witness would testify were too remote in time to be connected to the alleged crimes, and that the witness’ testimony was too speculative to connect the defendant to the witness’ testimony,” Roper wrote.
The judge’s concern involves testimony that the victim’s hymen was intact during an examination in November but not during a pelvic examination in May.
There were also indications that the victim developed a sexually transmitted disease after the defendant’s arrest. The prosecution did not ask the victim during the trial whether she was ever molested by anyone other than the defendant, Roper wrote.
“Based upon the foregoing, the court finds that the physician’s testimony was highly indicative that the victim was sexually abused by someone other than defendant after his arrest, and that her testimony was too speculative to be probative,” Roper wrote.
Roper did not immediately respond to a request for comment. District Attorney Ashley Wright declined to comment directly on the case, but said her office was ‘looking at all of our appropriate procedural options.’”
Public Defender Kate Mason declined to comment on pending litigation.
Dan Hillman, the executive director of the Child Enrichment Center, said taking away the conviction can affect the victim. There’s nothing as effective in therapy for victims of child abuse as a conviction, he said.
From a legal perspective, issuing a mistrial post-verdict is unusual, but not uncommon, said Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University. Often it’s the result of a judge’s realization that a verdict could be reversed or doubts about whether the trial was fair.
“It’s unusual because most judges don’t want to admit they’re wrong,” Saltzburg said. “It’s a very responsible judge who realizes when it’s over” that it should have gone differently.
Attorney James Felman, the vice chairman of the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section, echoed that opinion.
“Frankly it’s a pretty courageous move for a trial judge to do that,” Felman said.