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After a jury trial, Defendant William Tetreault was convicted of maliciously beating and sexually assaulting his girlfriend (Complainant) and sentenced to concurrent terms of thirty years' incarceration. Defendant appealed his convictions, alleging that the trial justice erred by (1) disallowing opinion testimony as to Complainant's character for truthfulness, and (2) allowing into evidence eleven of Defendant's prior convictions, which were used to impeach his credibility as a witness. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the superior court, holding that the trial justice carefully considered the proferred evidence in both instances and did not abuse his discretion in either of the contested evidentiary rulings.
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Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.
Justice Goldberg, for the Court. On November 26, 2003, the defendant, William
Tetreault (defendant or Tetreault), was charged with maliciously beating and sexually assaulting
his girlfriend, Teresa1 (Teresa or complainant). In November 2006, the defendant was tried
before a Superior Court jury on five felony charges, and convicted by the jury on all counts.2
The trial justice denied the defendant‟s motion for a new trial and sentenced him to concurrent
terms of thirty years at the Adult Correctional Institutions: twenty years to serve and ten years
suspended with probation for the two first-degree sexual assault counts; twenty years to serve
on the two felony assault counts; and one year to serve on the larceny count.
This case came before the Supreme Court on October 3, 2011, on defendant‟s appeal of
two of the trial justice‟s evidentiary rulings. First, defendant avers that the trial justice erred
under Rules 608(a) and 403 of the Rhode Island Rules of Evidence by disallowing opinion
The name of the complainant has been changed to protect her privacy.
We note that eight years elapsed between the date of the offense and this appeal. The case
took three years before being tried in Superior Court and an additional five years to be heard on
appeal by this Court. Although it is colloquially said that the “wheels of justice grind slowly
but exceedingly fine,” we are hard-pressed in the face of this delay to conclude that justice is
any the finer for it.
testimony as to complainant‟s character for untruthfulness. Second, defendant assigns error to
the trial justice‟s decision under Rule 609 of the Rhode Island Rules of Evidence to allow into
evidence eleven of defendant‟s prior convictions, which were used to impeach his credibility as
a witness. Because we are satisfied that the trial justice carefully considered the proffered
evidence in both instances and did not abuse his discretion, we affirm the judgment of the
Facts and Travel
On Monday, August 4, 2003, two Woonsocket police officers, Detective Sergeant Luke
Simard (Det. Simard) and Officer Omer Boucher, responded to Landmark Medical Center,
where they encountered a badly bruised and very distraught woman whom we shall refer to as
Teresa. Upon initial questioning by police, Teresa recounted how, after using an automated
teller machine (ATM) on the previous Saturday afternoon, she had been dragged, assaulted,
beaten, and raped by a stranger. Teresa described the attack as occurring on a blue blanket in a
wooded area behind a liquor store and near World War II Memorial Park. The next day,
suspicious about whether such a brutal attack as described by Teresa could occur in a busy area
of the city, the officers went to Teresa‟s apartment in order to conduct a second interview. The
defendant, who was Teresa‟s boyfriend at the time, also was home. Tetreault explained to the
police that he was with Teresa on the afternoon of the attack, but that he had not accompanied
her to the ATM, and that he had not reported the attack in deference to Teresa‟s wishes.
Detective Simard next obtained surveillance photographs of ATM transactions made
with Teresa‟s card and discovered that despite his assertions to the contrary, defendant was
present on Saturday when Teresa used the ATM and that he also used the ATM card by himself
the following day.
Armed with this new information, Det. Simard returned to Teresa‟s
apartment and asked her to accompany him to the police station, a place he considered to be a
“safe environment” for her to disclose the actual facts of the crime.
Once confronted with the photographs at the police station, Teresa relented and gave an
account of her attack that she eventually would tell a jury at Tetreault‟s trial. Teresa stated that
the assault had occurred in her apartment and was perpetrated by Tetreault. She described how
on that Saturday afternoon Tetreault had beaten her, burned her with a cigarette, nearly
suffocated her, and sexually assaulted her.
Teresa testified how on the day of the attack she and Tetreault walked to the bank and
then to the liquor store and then finally back to their apartment. Once inside, Teresa and
Tetreault engaged in a heated verbal argument after Teresa told Tetreault, who was
monopolizing her cell phone, to end the conversation. Teresa recounted that Tetreault became
very angry with her and forcibly grabbed her face while burning her leg with his cigarette. The
defendant was laughing and smiling while he violently beat her.
The defendant forcibly
inserted his penis into Teresa‟s mouth and then engaged in vaginal intercourse. After sexually
assaulting Teresa, defendant held a plastic bag over her face until she could barely breathe.
According to Teresa, when she asked him, “Why don‟t you just kill me?” Tetreault responded,
“It wouldn‟t be any fun.”
The next thing Teresa remembered was awakening the following morning; she was
naked, bloody, and bruised. Although Tetreault was contrite, he refused to allow her to go to
the hospital. He warned her that if she called the police, his friends would think of her as a
“cop-caller” and potentially harm her. Teresa recalled that at some point Tetreault left the
apartment, but that she was afraid to flee; she did, however, telephone her bank, and discovered
that Tetreault had withdrawn money from the account without her authorization.
transaction subsequently ripened into the larceny conviction.
Eventually, after she expressed a fear that she might die, Teresa persuaded defendant to
allow her to go to the hospital. Teresa explained that while in a taxi en route to the hospital,
Tetreault told her that if she was questioned by the police she should lie about how she was
injured. The defendant told Teresa to fabricate a story about being attacked by a stranger on a
blue blanket near the park.
At trial, defendant testified and admitted to hitting Teresa, but he denied her other
allegations. Tetreault testified that when Teresa took back her cell phone “it pissed me off” and
“I smacked her.” The defendant further described how he “grabbed her by the neck and actually
picked her up and put her up to the wall.” Although Tetreault acknowledged grabbing and
shaking Teresa multiple times during the afternoon, along with carrying her across the room by
her face, he adamantly denied sexually assaulting Teresa—stating that he “wasn‟t in any mood
for any sex.” He denied burning her with a cigarette. According to defendant, Teresa would
occasionally fall asleep while smoking.
The defendant testified that on the morning after the attack, he was afraid of going to jail
if he was arrested. He left the apartment and proceeded to withdraw $300 from Teresa‟s ATM
account—money he claimed he previously had deposited into the account.
considered running away, defendant returned to the apartment and tried to make amends with
Teresa. He testified that when Teresa called a taxi to take her to the hospital, he expressed
concern about police involvement, but that Teresa was the one who volunteered to concoct a
story in order to divert the police from the actual perpetrator.
After the jury returned a guilty verdict, the trial justice denied defendant‟s motion for a
new trial. This appeal ensued.
Before this Court, defendant argues that Woonsocket Police Detective Steven Nowak
(Det. Nowak)3 should have been permitted to testify as to his opinion of complainant‟s
character for untruthfulness. In a pretrial voir dire hearing, Det. Nowak testified that in 2003
and 2004, he responded to approximately eleven separate police complaints that Teresa made to
the Woonsocket police.4 Detective Nowak sometimes had direct contact with Teresa when
investigating these complaints, and on other occasions he acted in a supervisory capacity. He
described how Teresa appeared intoxicated on most of the occasions when she filed complaints
and how it had “appeared she was less than truthful” on some of the occasions, particularly
when she had been drinking.5
The detective did, however, testify that a number of the
complaints Teresa made were corroborated by other evidence and that some led to convictions
and others were not pursued simply because Teresa could not be located.6 Detective Nowak
We note that by the time of trial, Det. Nowak had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
Teresa also reported to police that she was raped in October 2004 by a different assailant, but
Det. Nowak did not respond to that complaint. At trial, defendant was permitted to crossexamine Teresa about this alleged subsequent rape.
Detectives Simard and Shawn Kerrigan also testified at the voir dire hearing about several
times when they or other officers responded to complaints made by Teresa and found her to be
highly intoxicated and even acting “crazy,” but these witnesses were not called upon to express
an opinion as to her character for truthfulness.
Detective Nowak described how on one occasion when Teresa reported that a man had hit her,
she not only presented with a bloody mouth, but that a witness corroborated the attack. He
additionally identified another time when Teresa accused a man of pushing her and the man
later admitted to doing so. Detective Nowak also testified that at least three, if not more, of
Teresa‟s complaints resulted in convictions.
also testified that he was unaware of any police complaints filed by Teresa near the time of trial,
in 2005 or 2006, and that in his most recent interactions with Teresa in relation to the ongoing
trial, he noticed that she seemed to have “cleaned up” her life and did not appear intoxicated at
any point. Detective Nowak also testified that since 2004 he had learned that Teresa had been
diagnosed with a seizure disorder and speech impediment that could cause her to slur her
At the conclusion of the voir dire hearing, the trial justice ruled that Det. Nowak‟s
testimony was not sufficiently relevant because it concerned events in 2004, a time that was too
distant from the circumstances at the time of trial in 2006. In issuing this preliminary ruling, the
trial justice noted the minimal personal interaction between Det. Nowak and Teresa, and that at
the time of trial, the witness considered Teresa‟s credibility to be reliable. The trial justice
acknowledged that Rule 608(a) permits opinion testimony regarding a witness‟s character for
untruthfulness. He then turned to Rule 403‟s balancing test, and he concluded that in this
instance the proffered evidence was only minimally relevant and would mislead the jury—
causing the danger of unfair prejudice to outweigh any probative value the evidence might
have.7 However, the trial justice did allow the jury to consider evidence that Teresa lied to the
police during their initial investigation in this case, that she abused alcohol, and that she had
filed other complaints with the police.
The defendant‟s second assignment of error rests on his contention that the trial justice
erred by allowing into evidence eleven of his fifteen prior criminal convictions, which, he
The trial justice noted at the time of his ruling that he would consider altering his decision
should something develop during trial that would invite the allowance of such testimony.
contends, unfairly prejudiced him.8 The trial justice denied defendant‟s in limine motion to
exclude the convictions on the grounds that they were remote in time and not probative of
credibility, but he did give a limiting instruction to the jury, charging them to only consider the
convictions as relevant to credibility.
Standard of Review
“It is well settled that this Court will not disturb a trial justice‟s ruling on an evidentiary
issue unless that ruling „constitutes an abuse of the justice‟s discretion that prejudices the
complaining party.‟” State v. Dellay, 687 A.2d 435, 439 (R.I. 1996) (quoting State v. Johnson,
667 A.2d 523, 530 (R.I. 1995)). Furthermore, “the trial justice has broad discretion in deciding
whether or not to admit evidence of prior convictions under Rule 609.” State v. Silvia, 898
A.2d 707, 718 (R.I. 2006) (citing State v. Werner, 831 A.2d 183, 204 (R.I. 2003)). “This Court
will not disturb a trial justice‟s finding regarding the admissibility of prior conviction evidence
for impeachment purposes unless our review of the record reveals an abuse of discretion on the
part of the trial justice” that prejudices the complaining party. State v. Rodriquez, 731 A.2d
726, 731 (R.I. 1999) (quoting State v. Morel, 676 A.2d 1347, 1357 (R.I. 1996)).
Specifically, defendant challenges the admission of: a 1987 conviction for felony larceny;
1989 convictions for misdemeanor assault and battery, domestic assault, misdemeanor assault,
and violation of a protection order; 1990 convictions for disorderly conduct and trespass; a 1991
conviction for felony assault; a 1992 conviction for domestic assault; and 1998 convictions for
possession of marijuana and obstructing a police officer. The defendant did not contest the
admission of four of his prior convictions: a 2000 conviction for obstruction of a police officer;
a 2001 conviction for misdemeanor assault; a 2002 conviction for misdemeanor domestic
assault; and a 2003 conviction for misdemeanor larceny. The defendant conceded that these
four convictions were relevant and not too remote.
The defendant‟s first basis of appeal derives from the trial justice‟s application of Rule
608(a). Rule 608(a) states that:
“The credibility of a witness may be attacked or supported by
evidence in the form of opinion or reputation, but subject to these
limitations: (1) the evidence may refer only to character for
truthfulness or untruthfulness, and (2) evidence of truthful
character is admissible only after the character of the witness for
truthfulness has been attacked by opinion or reputation evidence
This rule, however, must be read in conjunction with the balancing test set forth in Rule 403
that is applicable in all instances:
“Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative
value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair
prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by
considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless
presentation of cumulative evidence.”
Both the state and defendant cite to our well-settled holdings that the “crucial time when
the character of the witness under attack has its influence on his truth-telling is the time when he
[or she] testifies.” State v. Sepe, 122 R.I. 560, 568, 410 A.2d 127, 132 (1980) (quoting
McCormick‟s Handbook of the Law of Evidence, § 44 at 92 (2d ed. Cleary 1972)). The
proponent of the evidence bears the burden of showing that the witness‟s knowledge of
another‟s character is close to the time of trial when the witness, whose character is being
attacked, testifies. See State v. Cote, 691 A.2d 537, 541 (R.I. 1997).
The defendant argues that, “[t]estimony concerning a witness‟s reputation for
truthfulness as of any time before trial is admissible if the trial justice determines the evidence
not too remote to be significant.” Cote, 691 A.2d at 541. However, the issue before this Court
is whether the trial justice erred in disallowing Det. Nowak‟s opinion testimony about Teresa‟s
credibility and not her reputation in the community for truth and veracity.
In his ruling
excluding testimony about Teresa‟s reputation for truth and veracity, the trial justice found that
Det. Nowak lacked personal knowledge about Teresa‟s reputation, declaring that he did not
believe that Det. Nowak was “in any position to offer any testimony regarding her reputation in
the community for truth and veracity.”
With respect to Det. Nowak‟s opinion about Teresa‟s character for untruthfulness, the
trial justice found that the witness‟s opinion was centered on events that occurred in 2004, the
year after the incident, and not in 2006, at the time of trial. He therefore concluded that the
testimony was marginally relevant—that it had little, if any, probative value, and whatever its
probative value, it would be substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.
Trial justices are vested with discretion in making evidentiary rulings in the course of
trial. See State v. Manning, 973 A.2d 524, 536 (R.I. 2009); State v. Grundy, 582 A.2d 1166,
1172 (R.I. 1990). “A trial justice has broad discretion to exclude evidence under Rule 403 of
the Rhode Island Rules of Evidence „that, if admitted, would be misleading or unduly
prejudicial.‟” State v. Wright, 817 A.2d 600, 608 (R.I. 2003) (quoting State v. Rice, 755 A.2d
137, 152 (R.I. 2000)). Indeed, this judicial discretion to exclude evidence prevents a trial from
deteriorating into a series of minitrials to determine whether a witness was untruthful on
unrelated prior occasions or to test the reliability of the opinion evidence.
In the record before us, after the trial justice allowed defendant to thoroughly examine
Det. Nowak in the voir dire hearing, he carefully proceeded to balance the testimony‟s probative
value with any potential prejudice in accordance with Rule 403. The trial justice noted that
much had changed with respect to Teresa‟s lifestyle and stability between 2004 and 2006,
particularly the detective‟s current opinion that she had “cleaned up her act.” Given these
circumstances, the trial justice considered the testimony to be potentially prejudicial and, at
best, “very marginally” relevant to assessing Teresa‟s credibility at the time of trial.
Additionally, the trial justice permitted ample and fruitful cross-examination of Teresa about
her drinking, various police complaints, and initial dishonesty with police. Given the trial
justice‟s thoughtful review of the proposed testimony and the broad discretion afforded trial
justices when conducting Rule 403‟s evidentiary balancing, we decline to upset the balance that
the trial justice struck in excluding Det. Nowak‟s opinion testimony.
Prior Criminal Convictions
The defendant‟s second claim of error stems from the trial justice‟s decision to admit
into evidence eleven of defendant‟s prior convictions, which defendant argues were too remote
in time and unduly prejudicial.
Rule 609 permits admission of prior convictions for
impeachment purposes unless the court determines that the prejudicial effect of the conviction
substantially outweighs its probative value. Rule 609 states in pertinent part:
“(a) General Rule. For the purpose of attacking the
credibility of a witness, evidence that the witness has been
convicted of a crime shall be admitted if elicited from the witness
or established by public record.
“(b) Discretion. Evidence of a conviction under this rule
is not admissible if the court determines that its prejudicial effect
substantially outweighs the probative value of the conviction. If
more than ten years has elapsed since the date of the conviction or
of the release of the witness from the confinement imposed for that
conviction, whichever is the later date, or if the conviction is for a
misdemeanor not involving dishonesty or false statement, the
proponent of such evidence shall make an offer of proof out of the
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hearing of the jury so that the adverse party shall have a fair
opportunity to contest the use of such evidence.”
In making a determination under Rule 609, a trial justice must consider the remoteness
of the conviction, the nature of the crime, and the defendant‟s disdain for the law as reflected by
his or her criminal record. State v. Remy, 910 A.2d 793, 798 n.2 (R.I. 2006) (citing State v.
Mattatall, 603 A.2d 1098, 1117 (R.I. 1992)). We emphasize that Rhode Island‟s Rule 609 is
substantially more expansive than its federal counterpart. Silvia, 898 A.2d at 718 n.9. “In
contrast to Rule 609 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, our Rule 609 provides that the prior
conviction need not involve dishonesty, false statement, or a felony to be admissible.” State v.
Medina, 747 A.2d 448, 450 (R.I. 2000). “The rationale behind the fact that Rhode Island Rule
609 makes all prior convictions * * * available for the purpose of impeaching a witness is that
the jury should be able to consider whether or not a person who has previously broken the law
may have such disrespect for the law as to render him or her unwilling to abide by the oath
requiring truthfulness while testifying.” Remy, 910 A.2d at 798. A defendant‟s disdain for the
law has a bearing on his or her credibility and is a factor in weighing whether the prejudicial
effect of his prior convictions substantially outweighs their probative value.
A trial justice is afforded broad discretion in deciding whether to allow into evidence a
witness‟s prior convictions for impeachment purposes. State v. Vargas, 991 A.2d 1056, 1060
(R.I. 2010) (citing Silvia, 898 A.2d at 718); State v. Drew, 919 A.2d 397, 406 (R.I. 2007). In
determining whether the trial justice has abused his or her discretion, this Court “gives extreme
deference to the trial justice‟s determination.” Remy, 910 A.2d at 797 (quoting Werner, 831
A.2d at 204).
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The trial justice carefully considered Tetreault‟s prior convictions and, referring to
language from the New Jersey Supreme Court‟s decision in State v. Sands, 386 A.2d 378 (N.J.
1978)—as this Court did in Mattatall, 603 A.2d at 1118—the trial justice declared,
“A jury has the right to weigh whether one who repeatedly refuses
to comply with society‟s rules is more likely to ignore the oath
requiring veracity on the witness stand than a law abiding citizen.
If a person has been convicted of a series of crimes through the
years, then conviction of the earliest crime, although committed
many years before, as well as intervening convictions, should be
admissible.” Sands, 386 A.2d at 387.
The trial justice explained that, given defendant‟s long and continuous record of criminal
behavior throughout most of his adult life, the jury was entitled to consider the proffered
convictions. The trial justice tempered his decision by providing the jury with a clear limiting
instruction. We also note that defendant had additional convictions dating back to 1977 that the
state did not seek to introduce.
In light of the defendant‟s voluminous criminal record and the probative value of prior
convictions as bearing on his credibility as a witness, we decline to disturb the trial justice‟s
decision to admit the defendant‟s prior convictions. We are of the opinion that the trial justice
acted well within the bounds of his broad discretion.
Because we conclude that the trial justice did not abuse his discretion in either of the
contested evidentiary rulings, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court. The papers in this
case may be returned to the Superior Court.
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RHODE ISLAND SUPREME COURT CLERK’S OFFICE
Clerk’s Office Order/Opinion Cover Sheet
TITLE OF CASE:
State of Rhode Island v. William Tetreault.
DATE OPINION FILED: October 31, 2011
Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.
Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg
SOURCE OF APPEAL:
Providence County Superior Court
JUDGE FROM LOWER COURT:
Associate Justice Robert D. Krause
ATTORNEYS ON APPEAL:
Virginia M. McGinn
Department of Attorney General
For Defendant: Janice M. Weisfeld
Office of the Public Defender