The Rape Shield Statute: Its Limitations and Recent Application

North Carolina adopted a rule in 1979 to limit the introduction of evidence about the sexual behavior of an alleged victim in criminal trials for rape and other sexual offenses. Before that so-called rape shield rule was enacted, evidence of prosecuting witness’s general reputation for unchastity could be introduced in a rape trial to attack the witness’s credibility and to show the likelihood of his or her consent. See, e.g., State v. Banks, 295 N.C. 399 (1978), overruled on other grounds, State v. Collins, 334 N.C. 54 (1993).

A 1977 report on sexual assaults by the Legislative Research Commission recommended adoption of the rape shield rule “to improve the conduct of sexual assault prosecutions” in the state. Detailed Comments on Draft Law, Legislative Research Commission, Report to the 1977 General Assembly of North Carolina: Sexual Assaults 86 (1977). The commission explained that such prosecutions were “too often conducted in a way that embarrasses or intimidates the victim beyond the defendant’s legitimate interest in a fair trial.” Id. The “chief evil” was the “use of evidence of irrelevant sexual behavior to influence the court and jury, not because it is logically related to any material issue in the proceeding, but because it creases prejudice against the person whose sexual behavior is so demonstrated.” Id. The rule adopted in 1979 is codified in substantially the same form today as Rule 412 of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence.

Nearly forty years after its adoption, the appellate courts continue to refine the scope of the rape shield statute. Several recent cases explore the rule’s limitations and the analysis a trial court must employ when a defendant charged with a sexual offense seeks to admit evidence regarding the prosecuting witness’s sexual conduct.

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