SHERIDAN — The Wyoming Supreme Court of appeals revisited an aspect of a case that went to trial in 4th Judicial District Court last year, upholding the ruling of the lower court.
Robert Clayton Swett was found guilty on one count of aggravated child abuse in 4th Judicial District court Sept. 21, 2017. After four days of trial, the jury decided that Swett did intentionally or recklessly inflict serious bodily injury upon his 5-month-old child. He was sentenced to 18 to 23 years in prison.
In his appeal, attorneys representing Swett presented the following issue: Did the trial court abuse its discretion by admitting evidence of bad acts and irrelevant evidence contrary to evidentiary rules?
Under Wyoming Rule 404(b), “evidence of other crimes, wrongs or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show that he acted in conformity therewith,” according to the rule’s explanation. “It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity or absence of mistake or accident.”
Prosecuting attorneys must first notify the judge and additional counsel of this type of evidence before presenting it to the jury during a trial.
Wyoming Rule 401 defines relevant evidence as “having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence,” according to the rule’s explanation.
Prosecution submitted 404(b) evidence in the form of testimony from two cellmates of Swett’s while the defendant was incarcerated at the Sheridan County Detention Center.
The two inmates testified to Swett fighting and threatening one of the two inmates. The threats resulted in an altercation causing injuries to the inmate after being grabbed by the throat, forced into the shower room and thrown to the ground, according to prosecution’s argument. In speaking with detention staff, Swett initially said that the inmate’s injuries were due to an accidental fall in the shower. The state argued that the testimony was relevant to the child abuse charge, as Swett testified to dropping the child in the bathtub accidentally instead of intentionally throwing the child into the bathtub and causing a skull fracture, brain bleeding and retinal hemorrhaging.
For the 404(b) evidence to be relevant to the issue of intent and counter a defense of accident, the bad act described in the evidence must be similar to the charged crime, the appeal report said.
Wyoming Supreme Court ruled there was substantial evidence, without the jail incident, that the child’s injuries were not caused accidentally. The court also advised that supporting evidence about Swett’s behavior and inconsistent statements presented by witness testimony and the child’s medical history were more than adequate to support the jury’s verdict.
“On this record, there is no reasonable probability the verdict would have been different if the jail incident had not been admitted into evidence,” the opinion said.
Swett will remain in prison for his sentence.