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State v. Mazzaglia

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

December 13, 2016

THE STATE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
v.
SETH MAZZAGLIA

          Argued: November 16, 2016

          Joseph A. Foster, attorney general (Geoffrey W.R. Ward, assistant attorney general, on the brief and orally), for the State.

          Christopher M. Johnson, chief appellate defender, of Concord, on the brief and orally, for the defendant.

          DALIANIS, C.J.

         The defendant appeals his first degree murder convictions following a jury trial in Superior Court (Houran, J.). See RSA 630:1-a, I(b)(1) (2016). On appeal, he argues that the trial court erred when it excluded evidence alleging that the victim had expressed to her prior partners an interest in bondage-related sexual activities. We affirm.

         The relevant facts follow. A Strafford County grand jury indicted the defendant on seven charges relating to the victim's October 2012 death. The State charged two alternative-theory counts of first degree murder, one alleging a purpose to kill and the other alleging a knowing murder while committing felonious sexual assault.

         The central disputed issue at the defendant's trial concerned the circumstances of the victim's death. The State contended that the defendant, enraged by the victim's refusal to participate in a sexual encounter with him and his girlfriend, attacked the victim from behind while she was watching a movie, strangling her with a rope. The State further asserted that, after the victim had died, the defendant sexually assaulted her.

         By contrast, the defense theory was that the victim died during a consensual sexual encounter with the defendant and his girlfriend. According to that theory, the victim allowed the defendant and his girlfriend to put a "harness" around her and then had consensual sexual intercourse with the defendant, while his girlfriend accidently smothered her. The defense theory was based upon the story that the defendant's girlfriend had initially told the defense team in October 2012.

         Before trial, the defendant filed a motion to introduce evidence alleging that the victim, then a 19-year-old college student, had previously expressed interest in bondage-related sexual activities. The defense sought to admit evidence alleging that the victim had expressed interest in such activities to her prior sexual partner in May 2010, approximately two and one-half years before her murder. The defense also sought to admit evidence alleging that she had expressed the same interest more recently to her then-current sexual partner.

         The defendant argued that, without the evidence alleging that the victim had previously expressed interest in bondage-related sexual activity, "any claims that [the victim] would consent" to bondage-related activities with the defendant and his girlfriend "would seem objectively counterintuitive and implausible." The defendant's pretrial motion also sought to introduce evidence of specific instances of the victim's alleged prior sexual conduct. However, at the trial court hearing on the motion, defense counsel clarified that counsel sought only to introduce evidence of the victim's alleged "openness" to bondage-related sexual activities and would not seek to introduce evidence alleging specific instances of her prior consensual sexual conduct.

         The trial court denied the motion, pursuant to New Hampshire Rule of Evidence 412. See N.H. R. Ev. 412. The court explained that, under Rule 412, "inquiry into the prior consensual activities of victims is generally prohibited, " but that "[i]n certain instances, . . . protection of the victim and her privacy rights must yield to a defendant's right to due process and to confront accusers." (Quotation and brackets omitted.) "Thus, " the court further explained, "a defendant must be given the opportunity to demonstrate that due process requires admission of a victim's prior sexual conduct, " by demonstrating that the evidence "is relevant" and that "its probative value outweighs its prejudicial effect on the victim." (Quotations omitted.)

         The court first found that the evidence alleging the victim's prior expressions of interest in bondage-related sexual activities was not relevant to show that the victim consented to engage in such activities with the defendant and his girlfriend. The court also determined that, even if it were to accept the defendant's theory that the evidence had some relevance to show that the victim would consent to engage in bondage-related sexual activities with the defendant and his girlfriend, its probative value was outweighed by prejudice to the victim and her family.

         On four occasions during the trial, the defendant argued that the State had opened the door to the evidence alleging that the victim had previously expressed interest in bondage-related sexual activities. On each occasion, the trial court disagreed and precluded the defendant from introducing the challenged evidence. Ultimately, the jury convicted the defendant on both alternative theory first degree murder charges, and he was sentenced on one. This appeal followed.

         We first address the defendant's assertion that the trial court erred when it denied his pretrial motion to introduce evidence alleging that the victim had previously expressed interest in bondage-related sexual activities. The defendant argues that the trial court erred by applying Rule 412 to the challenged evidence. Alternatively, the defendant contends that, even if Rule 412 applies to the evidence, the trial court erred by determining that the evidence was irrelevant to a material issue and that, even if relevant, the probative value of the ...


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