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The Utah Supreme Court overturned a Riverton man's sexual abuse conviction Tuesday, ruling that prosecutors improperly brought up other sexual abuse accusations against him.
They left the door open however, for the evidence against 43-year-old James E. Verde to be introduced again.
He pleaded not guilty to a 2005 charge that he fondled a 12-year-old neighbor boy, claiming the child was lying because he hadn't been paid for catching a stray cat.
Prosecutors responded with the testimony of two other men who said Verde also abused them.
Verde denied those accusations and had not been charged with a crime in either case but he was found guilty of sexually abusing the 12-year-old and sentenced to 1 to 15 years in prison. Verde appealed, arguing the testimony of the two other alleged victims shouldn't have been admitted.
The Utah Court of Appeals sided with prosecutors, saying the evidence was allowed for two reasons: It established Verde's specific intent and rebutted his theory that the boy made up the story.
But the Utah Supreme Court disagreed, saying the first reason didn't apply because Verde hadn't said anything about intent, he'd simply denied the charge outright. The second reason, they wrote, might have made the evidence admissible but it wasn't the reason prosecutors gave for introducing it.
"We're disappointed," said assistant attorney general Marian Decker, but "we're hopeful ... the evidence can be admitted to rebut a fabrication defense."
Tuesday's opinion clarifies that prosecutors must have narrow, specific reasons to bring up other so-called bad acts, and a not-guilty plea alone isn't enough.
"I think it's a good decision. I think some members of the bar have been confused about how the rule applies," said defense attorney Linda Jones. "Just because you plead not guilty doesn't mean [any kind of] evidence comes in."
The ruling will give Verde a new trial.