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Recantations, Evidentiary Rules Cloud Sex Abuse Conviction

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By William Peacock, Esq. on April 16, 2013 5:10 PM

In 1997, Michael and Cindy Seibel fostered, and then adopted three children, females S.S. and P.S. and a male M.S. The children entered the system after their biological father was convicted of sexually abusing their three older siblings. Though abuse of S.S. and P.S. was also suspected, and noted on the children's South Dakota Medicaid applications, Cindy maintained that they were not sexually abused and they were never provided counseling related to any such abuse.

Sexual abuse reared its ugly head again in 2008, when P.S. and S.S. both disclosed that they had been physically and sexually abused by their adopted father, the defendant Michael Seibel.

Despite further investigation yielding no physical evidence of sexual abuse, and despite recanted recantations by both girls, Siebel was convicted of four of the fourteen separate charges. He appealed a number of evidentiary and procedural rulings.

Prior Sexual Abuse and Sexual Conduct

Seibel sought to introduce evidence of the alleged sexual abuse by the children's biological father as well as evidence of the girls' adolescent sexual conduct, including detected forensic evidence on P.S.'s sheets (which did not match Seibel).

The relevant rule, Rule 412, prohibits the admission of evidence involving alleged sexual misconduct offered to prove the victim's sexual predisposition or that the victim engaged in other sexual behavior. There are exceptions, however, for cases where the defendant is trying to prove that the physical evidence came from another source or where exclusion would violate the defendant's constitutional rights.

The district court called the evidence of prior sexual abuse "nothing but unsupported speculation by some unknown employee of [social services]" and ruled the evidence inadmissible under both 412 and 403, as it was far too weak to be more probative than prejudicial. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the 403 ruling.

As for the forensic evidence on the sheets, the Eighth Circuit reasoned that because the evidence was not introduced in the first place, nor was it alleged to have come from Seibel, there was no need to rebut its origins. And though the trial court did admit the evidence that there was no trace of Seibel's DNA on the sheets, the decision to exclude the evidence that a third party's semen was found on the sheets was proper under 412.

No New Trial Despite Second Recantation

Immediately prior to Seibel's sentencing, S.S. sent a letter that again recanted her previously unrecanted testimony. Nonetheless, after examining both the letter, S.S.'s reaffirmation of the original testimony, and jailhouse records of conversations between Cindy Seibel and S.S., the court held that the new evidence would not "probably produce an acquittal."

The standard for a new trial based on new evidence is exactly that - it must be of such a nature that, in a new trial, it would probably produce an acquittal.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed again, pointing out that the written post-conviction recantation was unreliable for obvious reasons (Cindy's influence and S.S.'s strong desire to be reunited with her siblings and daughter).

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