High court affirms man’s sexual abuse conviction and sentence

Posted on Dec 18 2018

The Supreme Court issued its opinion in Commonwealth v. Hank Taitano yesterday, affirming the trial court’s judgment and sentence against Taitano, who was found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor in the first degree. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison—the maximum—without the possibility of parole.

It was established during trial that Taitano had sex with the 12-year-old minor in July 2014. Months later, the victim discovered she was pregnant and told a police officer that Taitano had sexually abused her. After a three-day jury trial, Taitano was found guilty.

In his appeal, Taitano claimed deficiencies during and after trial, including: (1) an incomplete Daubert hearing; (2) prosecutorial misconduct during the Commonwealth’s closing remarks; (3) cumulative errors resulting in an unfair trial; (4) ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to object to prosecutorial misconduct; and (5) a sentence that was not properly individualized.

The Suprem Court further defined the parameters of expert testimony as outlined in Commonwealth v. Crisostomo issued earlier this year. In particular, the high court noted that determinations of reliability are assessed under the liberal standards set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court opinion of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. The CNMI Supreme Court noted that challenges to the expert’s conclusion go to the weight of the testimony, to be assessed by the jury, rather than to the admissibility of the testimony, decided by the trial judge. The high court ultimately concluded the trial court’s Daubert hearing was an abuse of discretion, and its exclusion of the expert’s testimony based on a finding of unreliability was also an abuse of discretion. Despite these findings, the Supreme Court found harmless error.

The Supreme Court also found that the Commonwealth did not improperly “vouch” for the victim. In other words, the court did not find the Commonwealth endorsed or expressed a personal belief about the victim’s testimony. As a result, counsel was not ineffective for failing to object, and the errors, viewed cumulatively, did not require a new trial.

Finally, the high court also affirmed the 30-year sentence imposed on Taitano. It reasoned that viewing the permissible aggravating and mitigating factors together, a reasonable person could render the same sentence.

The Supreme Court’s full opinion is available at www.cnmilaw.org. (PR)

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