A former state senator convicted in 2017 of selling sex with a tenant on his Franklin County farm has been granted a retrial by the Vermont Supreme Court.
Lawyers for Norm McAllister argued that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury to disregard testimony related to the alleged victim’s past sexual activity.
In an 18-page ruling posted Friday, the Supreme Court agreed, saying the trial court had “no legal authority” to instruct a jury “to disregard evidence after the case has been given to the jury for deliberation.”
“The trial court committed error by summarily and retroactively instructing the jury to ignore testimony that was never subject to a sustained objection or struck from the record and that was very relevant to the charges of procuring a person for the purposes of prostitution,” the ruling said.
The case against McAllister centered on his alleged efforts to coerce a female tenant on his farm to trade sex for money with migrant farm workers. During the case, McAllister testified that it was the woman who conceived of the sex-for-money scheme.
As part of an effort to bolster that claim, McAllister said on the witness stand that the woman acknowledged in a conversation with him that she “did it with a guy before for money.”
Prosecutors immediately objected, saying McAllister’s comments violated statutory protections under the state’s “Rape Shield” law.
But it was unclear during the trial whether the judge had granted or dismissed prosecutors' objections. And when the jury later sought clarification on whether McAllister’s statement should be excluded from their consideration or not, the court instructed them to disregard it.
“Attorneys have the right to rely on the understanding that the evidence that has been admitted or excluded during trial will remain admitted or excluded when the case is given to the jury for deliberation,” the ruling said. “It would be fundamentally unfair to require attorneys to predict what evidence may or may not be removed from the jury’s consideration by the trial judge after closing arguments and after the case was given to the jury.”
McAllister, who was serving in the Vermont Senate at the time of his arrest, was convicted of one misdemeanor count of prostitution, and sentenced to probation.