Women and Justice: Keywords

Domestic Case Law

Dittrich v. Woods United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (2011)

Sexual violence and rape

Thomas Dittrich was accused of having a three-month relationship with his daughter’s thirteen-year-old classmate, the Complaintant. The relationship began when the Complaintant went to Dittrich’s house to visit his daughter, and quickly progressed into a mutual intimate relationship. When the Complaintant’s parents uncovered the relationship, they immediately intervened and a criminal suit was filed against Dittrich. At trial, Dittrich’s family, the Complaintant, and other third parties testified about his conduct with Complaintant. Dittrich’s family recounted his history of domestic violence, to which Dittrich’s attorney did not object. Dittrich also tried to examine Complaintant about her sexual history, but could not overcome Michigan’s rape shield law by offering proof as to his proposed evidence. The jury convicted Dittrich on seven counts of criminal sexual conduct, sentencing him to 95-180 months’ imprisonment. Dittrich appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals and then to the Michigan Supreme Court, on claims that (1) he was denied effective counsel due to his attorney’s failure to object to his family’s domestic violence testimony, and (2) the court, by denying his motion to examine Complaintant about her sexual history, violated his right to confrontation. Both courts denied relief. In 2007, Dittrich petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging both ineffective assistance of counsel and a violation of his confrontation right. The district court granted the writ, holding the confrontation violation was harmless, but Dittrich did receive ineffective assistance of counsel. The state appealed that decision and Dittrich cross-appealed on the confrontation claim. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that to prove ineffective assistance of counsel, one must demonstrate that counsel’s performance was deficient, and that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Although the court found that Dittrich’s counsel’s performance was deficient, they ruled that the deficiency did not prejudice the defense due to the overwhelming evidence against Dittrich. As to the confrontation claim, the court reviewed Dittrich’s request based on whether the error had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict. The court held that Dittrich’s proposed inquiries into the Complaintant’s sexual history would have been of minimal value. Thus, the court’s decision to exclude the evidence did not have a “substantial and injurious effect” on the jury’s verdict. The court reversed the district court’s grant of habeas relief on Dittrich’s ineffective-assistance claim and affirmed its rejection of his right-to-confrontation claim.