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Witness wrongly denied but child rape convictions stand

SDSC GUZMAN illustration.jpg
Theodore Guzman photo from Department of Corrections

The South Dakota Supreme Court has agreed with a prison inmate that his trial judge erred by not allowing one of his witnesses to testify. But the high court says the error was harmless—the state’s case was strong and the witness’s testimony was not.

Theodore Guzman, now 40, is serving life in the South Dakota State Penitentiary for sex crimes against children under the age of 12.

One of the children was a guest in his mother’s Rapid City home, where he was also staying, on a night in November 2017. Soon after, the child reported Guzman had raped her.

After more victims came forward, Guzman was ultimately convicted of three counts of first-degree rape and one count of sexual contact.

He went to trial in January 2020, where the jury was unable to reach a verdict. He was tried again in February 2021.

Guzman’s mother, Helen, testified at his first trial and said the child had slept in her house only once, in early summer. Helen also said she was awake until long after midnight on the night the child stayed over, and she heard no disturbance.

At the second trial, Helen was again scheduled to testify, but the judge learned she had watched a portion of the trial in a closed-circuit viewing room in the courthouse and disallowed her as a witness.

Guzman’s trial attorney, Conor Duffy, represented him at oral arguments in May. Duffy told justices there had been a sequestration order during the first trial but not the second.

“There was no motion made for sequestration, oral or written, by either side,” he said. “There was no oral order announced in the courtroom or at any time during pretrial conference, and there was no written motion or order at any point during the second trial.”

Duffy told justices even if there had been a sequestration order, the judge’s action was extreme.

“The sanction should be either cross examination on the violation or contempt,” Duffy said. “It should almost never be complete exclusion, even of a prosecution’s witness, but absolutely, certainly, of a defense witness.”

In its opinion, the Supreme Court agreed that the trial court abused its discretion by disallowing Helen’s testimony. But justices agreed unanimously that Helen’s testimony, with her confusion on the date of the crime, could have been impeached.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007.