Corbett Update: Sexual Assault Conviction need not be Edited

In 2005 Ron Mayers attacked and sexually assaulted a stranger who was alone inside a shop in a commercial plaza. The shop was not open for business at the time. Mr. Mayers entered the shop and confirmed the victim was alone. He then closed the door so that she could not leave, dragged the victim into a back room, and started to pull off her clothes. He tore her bra and exposed her breasts. He held a knife to her throat and forced her to perform oral sex on him. Later he forced her to lie on the floor with objects piled on her back while he searched the business for money. He stole some cash from her wallet and fled the scene. Mr. Mayers discarded a wad of tissues near the scene, which was found to contain the victim’s vomit and his semen. While being seen by paramedics the victim vomited, and her vomit was found to contain Mr. Mayers’ semen.

At trial Mr. Mayers brought an application to prohibit the Crown from cross-examining him on his criminal record pursuant to R v Corbett, [1988] 1 SCR 670, 1988 CanLII 80 (SCC).

Mr. Mayers has an extensive criminal record. He had been released from prison less than three months before this crime. His criminal record includes two sexual assault convictions that were entered about three or four years before this trial. In the Corbett application he sought to have most of his criminal record redacted for the purpose of cross-examination, including the two sexual assault convictions.

The trial judge dismissed the Corbett application, in part because of defence counsel’s “forceful attack” on the victim’s credibility. Regarding the sexual assault convictions, the trial judge ruled that editing was not required and a strong limiting instruction would address any prejudice.

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s ruling: R v Mayers, 2014 ONCA 474. The Court held:

R. v. Corbett, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 670, the guiding authority, instructs, at paras. 35 and 50, that trial judges should begin from the premise that juries should receive all relevant information accompanied, where necessary, by a proper and clear limiting instructions. Corbett further instructs that the discretion to keep information about an accused's criminal record from the jury should not be exercised absent clear grounds in policy or law for doing so.
Bearing in mind the approach dictated by Corbett and giving the trial judge’s ruling the appropriate deference, we cannot say that she erred in exercising her discretion against editing the appellant’s criminal record by removing the convictions for sexual assault.  This ground of appeal cannot succeed. [paras 5 and 6]

In trials for sexual offences, trial judges have sometimes ruled that sexual assault convictions should be edited down to assaults, and those rulings have been upheld on appeal: R v Charbonneau, 2012 ONCA 314 (CanLII) at para 29; R v Paul, 2009 ONCA 443 (CanLII) at para 19; R v Batte, 2000 CanLII 5750 (ON CA) at para 51.

The decision in Mayers confirms that editing the accused’s convictions for sexual assault down to assault is by no means required. A strong limiting instruction can address any prejudice, even in a trial for sexual assault.