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Washington Supreme Court Clarifies Criminal Law Burden of Proof

On Behalf of | Nov 24, 2014 | Criminal Law

The Washington Supreme Court  decided State v. W.R. on October 30, 2014 and clarified the burden of proof in rape cases. The juvenile defendant  (W.R.) was charged with second degree rape. In a bench trial, since jury trials are not allowed in juvenile  court under Washington criminal law, the trial judge found W.R guilty of second degree rape. The defense had argued that the sexual intercourse between W. R. and another juvenile had been consensual. The trial court ruled that the defendant had not proven consent and that he had the burden to do so. 

Under current Washington criminal law, rape in the second degree requires the prosecution to prove that the intercourse was by means of ” forcible compulsion.” Rape in the third degree, a lesser offense, requires the prosecution to prove that the woman did not consent to intercourse. Many previous Washington decisions have struggled with trying to define the line between these two crimes, in cases with often disputed factual scenarios.

Previous Washington decisions had placed the burden on the defense to prove that  the woman had consented. In the  State v. W. R. decision, the court ruled that placing the burden on the defense to prove consent in a forcible compulsion rape prosecution was a violation of existing United States Supreme Court precedent allocating the burden of proof in a criminal law case.  This was because in order to prove “forcible compulsion” the state would have to negate evidence of consent.  Thus to meet its burden, the prosecution has  over come and  disprove evidence of consent. As the court observed, “there can be no forcible compulsion when the victim consents, as there is no resistance to overcome.” the court explicitly overruled the earlier cases which had placed on the defense the burden of proving consent to intercourse.

This case is important for defendants who are accused of sexual misconduct, but who claim that the woman consented to sexual activity. The decision clarifies that the state has the burden to prove “forcible compulsion” beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the defendant has no burden to prove there was consent. On a practical level, juries will still have to grapple with the conflicting stories and memories of participants in a disputed event, often without any  physical evidence,  and reach their own conclusions about what actually happened in order to render a fair verdict.

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