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Matthew Schaffer granted a new trial in sexual assault case

 Posted on January 18, 2014 in Criminal Defense

An Illinois man was recently granted a new trial after being convicted of sexually assaulting a woman in a Wheeling condo building.

A Cook County appeals court found that the defendant was improperly cross-examined and that this likely led to his conviction.

The purported victim in this case was a New York woman that was staying with some friends after a night out while visiting downtown Chicago.

The woman testified that Matthew Schaffer entered condo building and forcibly assaulted her before taking money and jewelry from her purse.

Schaffer testified that he knew the victim because he had sold marijuana to her on two occasions and that she fabricated the assault story because she was caught cheating on her husband with him.

During jury deliberations, the jury indicated several times that it was split on all three counts. The jury eventually convicted Schaffer on aggravated criminal sexual assault, home invasion, and armed robbery. He was sentenced to 20 years and appealed, alleging that the state improperly cross-examined him.

In Illinois, it is improper for a prosecutor to ask a defendant to testify as to the credibility of other witnesses because this conflicts with the jury's task of determining victim credibility and could also "demean and ridicule" the defendant.

Improper questioning is rarely used to overturn convictions because this is considered a "harmless error" when evidence of a defendant's guilt is overwhelming. In this case, the evidence of the defendant's guilt amounted to a credibility contest between him and the victim, which could have made the improper questioning highly material to the jury's decision.

The jury was obviously not convinced of Schaffer's guilt due to their splits during the lengthy deliberations.

"In our view, the prosecutor's improper questions were designed to demean and ridicule defendant," wrote appellate court justice Aurelia Marie Pucinski for the majority. "This was not a case where a prosecutor was simply attempting to give a defendant an opportunity to explain differences in the evidence. Rather, the prosecutor in the instant case asked defendant questions that forced him to speculate as to other witnesses' intent and in essence, accuse them of lying."

Pucinski also noted that this was essentially a "he said, she said" case in which both Schaffer and the victim had credibility issues.

"Given the closeness of the evidence and the fact that credibility was the core consideration before the jury, we find that defendant was denied a fair trial by the prosecution's repeated improper questioning," Pucinski wrote. "Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial."

Rolling Meadows attorney Donald J. Cosley is highly experienced in criminal defense cases. If you have a question about a criminal case, contact him online or call 847-253-3100.

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