NEWARK, N.K. (CN) – Reinstating the conviction of a man who sexually assaulted an 11-year-old, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that prosecutors were right to admit evidence that he played strip poker with the child in another state.
The strip-poker game in Alabama was not something over which Carl Garrison was charged, but New Jersey prosecutors argued that it served as intrinsic evidence to the charges at issue.
Garrison went on trial in Gloucester County, New Jersey, for assaulting one of his girlfriend’s daughters during the the summer of 2010.
To protect the victim’s identity, she is identified by the pseudonym Joan in the March 20 ruling. Joan had just finished fifth grade in June 2010 when the abuse started. It stopped in September when state welfare workers took Joan and her 9-year-old sister out of their mother’s home because of 53-year-old Garrison’s involvement in an unrelated assault.
Upon moving in with her father in 2011, Joan began admitting what had happened to her, saying Garrison had intercourse with her multiple times over the previous summer, including during the weeks that the family had spent in Alabama.
Garrison initially denied the sexual assaults but he did admit to police that he had played strip poker with Joan and her sister in Alabama.
Later Garrison tried to exclude the strip-poker testimony, but his motion failed, so he told the jury that the racy card game was part of Joan’s seduction act. He said the child had a habit of forcing her “breasts” in his face, touching his penis while he slept and running around the house naked.
The jury was even played a videotaped statement by Garrison at the police department where he told the detectives: “The girl walked over and handed me a condom, she is definitely the aggressor.”
Now facing 52 years in prison after the jury rejected this defense, Garrison challenged the admission of the strip-poker testimony as unfair.
Though initially successful — the New Jersey Appellate Division had awarded Garrison a new trial — the state Supreme Court reversed Monday.
“Contrary to defendant’s arguments, the strip poker game has direct relevance ‘to a material issue in dispute,’” Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina wrote for the court. “The testimonial evidence of the strip poker game is relevant because it tends ‘to prove or disprove’ whether any inappropriate action originated with Joan.”
“Because the testimonial evidence of the strip poker game sheds light on whose idea it was to play the game, it is highly relevant to the issue that any inappropriate actions originated with Joan, an issue defendant himself raised in this case,” Fernandez-Vina added.
The 27-page ruling also notes that testimony of game serves as evidence of Garrison’s “plan to further desensitize Joan to sexual conduct so that he could continue to abuse her.”
Timing also supports the evidence’s value, as the strip poker occurred during the four-month period in which he was charged with abusing Joan.
“Although the precise details of the incident, including which articles of clothing were removed and who initiated the game, were subject to dispute, the evidence that defendant played strip poker with the girls was beyond ‘clear and convincing’,” Fernandez-Vina wrote.
As to the evidence’s high probative value, the court noted that “it provided the jury with evidence of a continuous course of conduct concerning defendant’s abuse of Joan throughout the summer.”
Fernandez-Vina mentioned as well the other stomach-churning evidence that the jury considered, including “detailed testimony regarding Joan’s performance of oral sex on defendant and how he digitally penetrated her anus.”
“In the context of the record as a whole, it is unlikely the strip poker evidence had ‘a probable capacity to divert the minds of the jurors’ when far more prejudicial evidence was presented,” the ruling states.
Five justices joined Fernandez-Vina in his decision.