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State v. Fuller

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

December 20, 2019

The State of New Hampshire
v.
Ronald L. Fuller

         Having considered the briefs and oral arguments of the parties, the court concludes that a formal written opinion is unnecessary in this case. The defendant, Ronald L. Fuller, appeals his convictions, following a jury trial in the Superior Court (Ignatius, J.), on two counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault and one count of felonious sexual assault. See RSA 632-A:2, :3 (Supp. 2017). The defendant argues that the trial court erred by improperly: (1) admitting the testimony of a lay witness, either because it was irrelevant or because it exceeded the scope of lay testimony; and (2) allowing the State to question the defendant about a "different investigation." We reverse and remand because the trial court unsustainably exercised its discretion by admitting irrelevant testimony of a key witness. We also conclude that the trial court erroneously permitted the State to question the defendant about a different investigation.

         The following facts are drawn from the record. Between February 2000 and approximately June 2005, the complainant, the niece of the defendant's long-time girlfriend, lived intermittently at the defendant's house when she was between 8 and 13 years of age. In November 2005, the complainant accused the defendant of attempting to inappropriately touch her at some point during 2003 and 2004. Although the defendant was charged with attempted felonious sexual assault, the State eventually nol prossed that indictment in December 2008. In 2013, when the complainant was 21 years old, she alleged that the defendant had done more than attempt to touch her; she accused him of sexually assaulting her between 2001 and 2004. The complainant testified that she did not tell the police in 2005 about the sexual assaults because she "was scared and not ready to admit what had happened." In 2014, the defendant was indicted on two counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault and one count of felonious sexual assault. In 2018, he was tried by a jury.

         As the State's first witness, Police Officer Swift testified that she was an "assisting officer" in the case, tasked to "just . . . do follow ups" with various witnesses. Swift also testified that she had previously investigated about "two dozen" sexual assault cases, worked with a sexual assault response team, and attended multiple trainings about sexual assault. Following this recitation of her training and experience, the State asked Swift: "In any of the cases you've investigated, were there late disclosures?" Swift replied: "Yeah, majority of them are."

         The defendant objected, arguing, in part, that no late disclosure was made in this case. The trial court overruled this objection. The State and Swift then had the following exchange:

Q. So I asked you, have you investigated a case in which there was a late disclosure?
A. Yes.
Q. Have you investigated cases in which the disclosure comes out piecemeal?
. . . .
A. Absolutely.
. . . .
Q. Have you investigated a case in which the victim remained in the home?
A. Yes.

         The defendant moved to strike this testimony, questioning its relevance. The trial court denied the motion, but told the State not to restate the question and to move on. The defendant was subsequently convicted on all three indictments. This appeal followed.

         The defendant argues that Swift's testimony was irrelevant. We agree. We review a trial court's decision to admit testimony subject to the unsustainable exercise of discretion standard. State v. Gonzalez, 150 N.H. 74, 77 (2003). To demonstrate an unsustainable exercise of discretion, the defendant must show that the trial ...


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