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"Criminal defendants are constitutionally entitled to fair trials, not perfect ones," says Van Hollen. "Michael J. Carter received the effective assistance of counsel at his trial. The Wisconsin Supreme Court recognized this and correctly reinstated Carter's conviction for sexually assaulting a five-year-old child."
MADISON - In an appeal brought by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the Wisconsin Supreme Court today reversed the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and reinstated Michael James Carter's Milwaukee County conviction for first-degree sexual assault of a child. Adopting the Department's position in the case, the Court held that Carter's defense counsel made a reasonable tactical decision not to introduce at trial evidence of allegations that the child had been the victim of a previous assault. The Court also held that, under Wisconsin law, such evidence would not have been admissible.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen praised the high court's decision. "Criminal defendants are constitutionally entitled to fair trials, not perfect ones," said Van Hollen. "Michael J. Carter received the effective assistance of counsel at his trial. The Wisconsin Supreme Court recognized this and correctly reinstated Carter's conviction for sexually assaulting a five-year-old child."
Milwaukee County prosecutors charged Carter in 2005 with the sexual assault. In addition to the allegations against Carter, the defense learned about the possibility that the victim had been assaulted by her cousin. Rather than present that evidence in an effort to provide an alternative explanation for the child's allegations, Carter's defense counsel chose to argue that the victim's mother prompted her to falsely accuse Carter.
After his conviction, Carter challenged defense counsel's decision not to offer evidence of a possible earlier assault. The Milwaukee County circuit court denied Carter's challenge, but the Wisconsin Court of Appeals remanded the case to the circuit court for further proceedings. The Wisconsin Department of Justice petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court for review, and that Court agreed to hear the case.
Upon review, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found defense counsel's tactical decision reasonable. From the Court's decision:
We conclude that [defense counsel's] performance was not deficient because his strategic decision not to present evidence of the previous sexual assault was objectively reasonable considering all the circumstances. At trial, [defense counsel] informed the circuit court that he had made the strategic decision not to present evidence that [the victim] may have been previously sexually assaulted by a third party. He gave three reasons for his decision: (1) "[he] thought the DA would likely object"; (2) "[he did not] see it as relevant"; and (3) "[he thought he would]if anything, build up sympathy for this young girl." Like the circuit court, we decline to criticize [defense counsel] for opting not to present evidence that he deemed irrelevant to his defense strategy and that would have conjured up the jury's sympathy for [the victim].
The Wisconsin Supreme Court also held that, under Wisconsin's Rape Shield Law and interpretive case law, evidence of a previous sexual assault would not have been admissible at Carter's trial. Carter therefore suffered no prejudice from defense counsel's decision not to offer the evidence at trial.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision in State of Wisconsin v. Michael James Carter, No. 2008AP1185-CR, appears at the Court's website:
Michael James Carter remains incarcerated at the New Lisbon Correctional Institution in New Lisbon, Wisconsin.
The Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office prosecuted Carter in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. Assistant Attorney General Aaron R. O'Neil represented the State of Wisconsin in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.