A local man accused of sexually assaulting a high school student had his conviction reversed in an opinion (PDF) published Thursday morning by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. The appeals court found that the trial judge erred in letting prosecutors introduce evidence accusing the man of making suggestive comments to other students in the past.
A District of Columbia Superior Court jury convicted Barry Harrison in September 2009 on charges of enticing a child and child sexual abuse during his time as a mentor at Spingarn Senior High School. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
Harrison, according to the opinion, was working at Spingarn in April 2009 for several weeks as an intern with Peaceaholics, a local nonprofit that does mentoring work for at-risk young people. He was tasked with mediating conflicts, and also came into contact with other students. Three students claimed that he made inappropriate overtures, and a fourth student accused him of sexually assaulting her in a stairwell.
At trial, Harrison’s attorney had argued that the students made up the allegations to get him in trouble because he wouldn’t let them cut class or roam the hallways.
During the trial, the prosecutor presented witnesses who testified Harrison had made sexually suggestive comments to them in the past, and again referenced that testimony in closing arguments. The judge instructed the jury to consider this evidence in terms of whether Harrison was motivated to engage in a sexual relationship with the student in question.
The three-judge panel found that the trial judge erred in letting the jury hear the testimony, and that there was enough prejudice to warrant a new trial. The testimony contributed little to the question of motive, the court found, and would have likely been taken by the jury as proof of Harrison’s bad character, making it inadmissable.
“The jury was invited to infer from Harrison’s remarks…that he had a sexual interest in teenage girls, and (the forbidden inference) that he acted in conformity with that bad character trait by committing the charged offenses,” the court wrote.
Harrison’s attorney, Washington solo practitioner Steven Kiersh, said he was pleased with the decision and that “we look forward to completely vindicating Mr. Harrison in a new trial.” The U.S. attorney’s office, through a spokesman, declined to comment.