For over 100 years in Washington, prosecutors have been able to introduce evidence in sexual assault trials under a doctrine known as "lustful disposition."
If, courts have ruled, past contact between a defendant and an alleged victim demonstrates the defendant's "lustful disposition," it can be cited as evidence, even if the defendant wasn't charged for that contact and even if it wasn't criminal.
On Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that state courts may no longer use the doctrine, calling the term "archaic" and "outdated" and saying it reinforces harmful myths about sexual violence that "improperly focus on the victim."
"The term 'lustful disposition' perpetuates outdated rape myths that sexual assault, including child sex abuse, results from an uncontrollable sexual urge or a sexual need that is not met," Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis wrote for the court.
The case at hand, State of Washington v. Crossguns, involved charges of child sexual abuse. At trial, prosecutors presented evidence about not only the charged offenses but also that the defendant, Patrick Crossguns Sr., had previously abused the victim. The trial court had ruled to allow the testimony because it could prove Crossguns' "lustful disposition toward" the child.
Crossguns was convicted of second-degree rape of a child and second-degree child molestation.
Crossguns appealed, arguing, among other things, that testimony about prior, uncharged acts should not have been allowed.
Generally, evidence of a person's character is not allowed to be used to prove that in the alleged crime the person acted in accordance with their character. There are many exceptions, including if the evidence speaks to a defendant's motive, opportunity, intent or plan.
And, until Thursday, if the evidence spoke to a defendant's "lustful disposition," it was fair game.
The state Supreme Court ruled to get rid of the "lustful disposition" doctrine but ruled that in Crossguns' case, the evidence was properly allowed, for other reasons, including that it showed evidence of "a planning and intent involved in building a relationship with the child victim."
The court was unanimous in axing the "lustful disposition" doctrine but was split 7-2 on whether the specific evidence in Crossguns' case should have been allowed.
The seven-justice majority wrote that the reasons for allowing the evidence in this case were almost directly contrary to what is implied by "lustful disposition." In doing so, the majority's opinion seeks to correct misperceptions, and a number of the court's own past opinions, that focus on sexual attraction and desire rather than sexual violence.
The majority allowed the evidence in this case, they wrote, because it shows "grooming" and "planning," concepts "in contradiction with the idea that 'lust' is an overwhelming motivator and almost impervious to planning."
Although it had been in use in Washington for the last century, the "lustful disposition" doctrine dates back much further, to church courts in England that dealt with charges of adultery. If two adults could be shown to have a "lustful disposition" toward one another, the thinking went, they were more likely to have committed the offense of adultery.
Such principles were then imported to colonial courts. They remain in use in many states, although no longer for adultery.
In nixing its use in Washington, the Supreme Court wrote that the term "reinforces the myth of the pathological, crazed rapist who is a stranger to the victim."
"The term 'lustful disposition' is an outmoded, inaccurate term that reinforces myths about sexual assault," the court wrote. "We abandon this term because it is incorrect and harmful."
This is not the first time that the state Supreme Court in recent years has sought to overturn its own "harmful" precedents.
In June 2020, the nine justices wrote an open letter to the state's legal community, calling on them to work harder to dismantle the legal system's legacy of systemic racism.
"We cannot undo this wrong — but we can recognize our ability to do better in the future," they wrote.
Later that summer, the court overturned a more than 100-year-old Supreme Court ruling about Yakama fishing rights that explicitly rejected tribal sovereignty.
"We cannot forget our own history, and we cannot change it," Montoya-Lewis wrote in that case. "We can, however, forge a new path forward, committing to justice as we do so."
And several months after that, in a totally unrelated case, the Supreme Court took the opportunity to apologize for its 60-year-old decision that a cemetery could bar a Black family from burying their dead son because of his race.
The old decision, which condemned civil rights and integration, was "incorrect and harmful," the court wrote. It was an example "of the unfortunate role we have played."