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People v. Aldridge

Court of Appeals of Colorado, First Division

September 20, 2018

The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Robert Joseph ALDRIDGE, Defendant-Appellant.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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          Chaffee County District Court No. 13CR113, Honorable Charles M. Barton, Judge

         Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General, Paul Koehler, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee

          Megan A. Ring, Colorado State Public Defender, Mark Evans, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant



         [¶ 1] This case presents the issue of the intersection of two constitutional rights— a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him or her and the defendant’s right to be present at all critical stages of a trial. With adequate findings, the former right may yield in a sexual assault case to allow child witnesses to testify in a different room from the defendant, while the latter requires that the defendant and the jury be located in the same room. Here, the trial court implemented the exception to the right to confrontation of defendant, Robert Joseph Aldridge, by separating him from the alleged child victims. However, we hold that it did so at the expense of Aldridge’s right to be present during their testimony, by requiring that Aldridge be excluded from the courtroom and requiring him to watch the children’s testimony from the judge’s chambers, along with the judge, outside the presence of the jury. Accordingly, we reverse Aldridge’s judgment of conviction and sentence, and remand for a new trial.

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          I. Background

         [¶ 2] C.O. and L.A. spent about three weeks camping alone with Aldridge, their maternal grandfather, during the summer of 2013. At the time, C.O. was four years old and L.A. was nine years old.

         [¶ 3] A few days after she was picked up from Aldridge’s campsite, C.O. told her aunt that she had seen and touched Aldridge’s "pecker." The aunt later questioned L.A., who eventually confirmed C.O.’s allegations. During separate forensic interviews, C.O. did not report any sexual contact with her grandfather, but L.A. stated that both girls had touched Aldridge’s penis during the camping trip and that it got stiff. As a result of the allegations, the People charged Aldridge with two counts of sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust as part of a pattern of abuse, two counts of sexual assault on a child as part of a pattern of abuse, four counts of sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust— victim under fifteen, four counts of sexual assault on a child, and two counts of aggravated incest.

         [¶ 4] At trial, the defense argued that Aldridge was physically incapable of obtaining an erection because he had undergone a prostatectomy as part of his cancer treatment and that strained family dynamics resulted in the alleged victims’ false accusations. A jury found Aldridge guilty as charged. The trial court sentenced him to 116 years to life in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

         [¶ 5] On appeal, Aldridge contends that the trial court erred by (1) excluding him from the courtroom while C.O. and L.A. testified; (2) permitting witnesses and the prosecutor to improperly bolster the alleged victims’ credibility; (3) allowing a detective to give expert testimony that children’s clothing found in Aldridge’s motor home may have been an "erotic trigger"; and (4) imposing ten consecutive sentences for four acts. We agree with his first contention and reverse on that basis.

          II. Exclusion From Courtroom

         [¶ 6] Aldridge contends that the trial court violated his right to be present by excluding him from the courtroom when the alleged victims testified, and that the error requires reversal. We agree.

          A. Additional Facts

         [¶ 7] Before trial, the People moved for C.O. and L.A. to testify by closed-circuit television (CCTV) under section 16-10-402, C.R.S. 2017. Specifically, the People asked that the children be permitted "to testify outside the presence of the defendant, in a separate courtroom." The People further represented that CCTV capability existed between the two courtrooms in the county courthouse.

         [¶ 8] In a written objection, Aldridge argued that allowing the children to testify outside of his presence violated his "due process right to [be] present during critical stages of the proceedings." He argued that "[t]he right to be present isn’t satisfied by watching your own trial on TV, even if you are watching it in the company of the judge."

         [¶ 9] During a motions hearing, the defense primarily argued that the People had not proved that requiring the children to testify in Aldridge’s presence would cause them serious emotional distress. The defense also reiterated that it had constitutional concerns that had been addressed in its objection. The trial court granted the People’s motion. Neither the trial court nor the parties indicated at the hearing that Aldridge, rather than the children, would be removed from the courtroom.

         [¶ 10] At the close of the first day of trial and outside the presence of the jury, the trial court explained that the judge, Aldridge, and an investigator from the public defender’s office would watch the children’s testimony from the judge’s chambers while the children testified in the courtroom.[1] The trial court

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instructed that, if Aldridge needed to communicate with defense counsel during the children’s testimony, the investigator would relay his comments via an instant messaging system.

         [¶ 11] The following morning, the People requested that the children’s mother be permitted to stay in the courtroom during their testimony under section 16-10-402(2)(a)(V). Instead, the trial court allowed the children’s aunt to stay. When asked for its position on permitting the aunt to remain in the courtroom, the defense stated that it was "objecting to the whole procedure."

         [¶ 12] Before the children testified, the trial court and Aldridge tested the CCTV setup outside the jury’s presence. Aldridge confirmed that he was "seeing the picture," but stated that it was "not like looking at a person. It [was] bouncy or.... It[ was] like something[ was] lagging." After a break off the record, the court clerk reported, "All of our testing is normal." However, Aldridge then said that he had had some trouble hearing his counsel and the prosecutor.

         [¶ 13] When the jury re-entered the courtroom, Aldridge was in the judge’s chambers. The jury could not see or hear him. Before the trial court judge left the courtroom, he explained:

The Court— the way the next two witnesses, who are going to be the children, are going to testify is under the Provisions of the Statute. There is separation— it calls for ...

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