If you are looking for an example of the power of the rule of law and the core principle that justice be blind and emotional, look no further than the New York Appellate Division's ruling in case of People v. Simon Watts. Mr. Watts was a former New York City school teacher who was charged with 11 counts of sex crimes against several of his 3rd and 4th-grade students. Among other allegations, several of his 8 and 9-year old students testified that he called them to the back of the classroom and forced their hands to rub his penis while he groped them. In 2013, he was convicted of 11 counts of first- and second-degree sex abuse, forcible touching, and endangering the welfare of a child. Ultimately, a Queens County Supreme Court Judge sentenced him to 35 years in prison.
By any account, these are egregious crimes. The idea that an elementary school teacher was found to have forced sexual contact on young children, over a long period of time, strikes fear inside any parent of young child. There is very little chance that Mr. Watts garners any sympathy among general society. I would imagine that very few batted an eye when he was sentenced to 35 years – akin to a virtual life sentence.
However, emotional effect, popularity, and even morality, are not what the law – or in this case - appellate courts seek. Instead, the appellate court's job is to explore whether errors were made in a lower court that deprived a defendant from receiving due process and a fair trial. How their decision will sit with the public is irrelevant – even if, for instance, their decision means that someone the public despises benefits from a such a decision.
Last week, a New York Appellate Court showed how unpopular the law could be by reversing Simon Watts' conviction because the trial judge allowed the prosecutor to elicit evidence of prior complaints by children against him. The Court found that it was improper for the trial judge to permit evidence that the school principal had heard about claims – ten to be exact - that Mr. Watt's was engaged in similar conduct involving young girls at another school. The court found that this evidence of additional complaints against Watts violated a general principle of law that a case should be tried on the facts, not on the idea that a defendant's propensity to commit the crimes charged.
Despite how unsympathetic the public finds Mr. Watts and his conduct, the appellate court relied strictly on basic principles of law even when that basic principle meant that a defendant will benefit, and the public will find it unpopular.