NH high court upholds violent sexual predator's conviction
By PAT GROSSMITH New Hampshire Union Leader
CONCORD – The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Friday upheld the convictions of a violent sexual predator who argued prosecutors did not definitively identify him as the culprit because he did not attend his own trial.
William Ploof, 53, also contended a mistrial should have been called when a witness made a comment that, "This guy is a multiple offender," indicating he had a criminal record.
The Supreme Court rejected both arguments.
According to the decision, Ploof was convicted of aggravated felonious sexual assault and conspiracy to commit aggravated felonious sexual assault in Coos County Superior Court. He was accused of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old boy between August 1982 and April 1983, at a time when the child and his friend sometimes associated with a group of men, which included Ploof, who gave them alcohol and marijuana.
On one of those days, after the friend left with another man and headed toward the bathroom, Ploof sexually assaulted the 12-year-old.
Twenty-seven years went by and in 2009, when Berlin police were investigating an unrelated crime, they talked with the now 39-year-old man as a possible witness and the allegations against Ploof surfaced, resulting in the criminal charges.
Ploof was present at jury selection but later waived his right to be present at trial, which the court initially denied. But then Ploof refused to be transported and ultimately his request was granted and the trial proceeded without him.
At the close of the state's case, the defense moved to dismiss, contending the evidence was insufficient to prove identity, and later moved to set aside the verdict for the same reason. The court denied the motions and Ploof appealed.
The Supreme Court, in its decision, said the state has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the person charged with a crime is the perpetrator. "Of course, when a defendant waives his right to appear at trial and the trial proceeds in absentia, witnesses cannot point to the defendant in court to identify the defendant as the perpetrator," the court noted.
In Ploof's trial, three witnesses testified they knew him personally and identified him by name. The defense, according to the court, never objected when they they were questioned about the "Defendant, Mr. William Ploof," “the defendant in this particular case, Mr. Ploof," or “William Ploof, the defendant in this particular case."
"The defendant could have challenged the factual foundation for the witnesses' testimony that the William Ploof that they were discussing was indeed the defendant, but he did not do so. We therefore conclude that the jury could properly have found that the witnesses had personal knowledge that the William Ploof about whom they testified was the defendant," the court said.
As for the witness's comment about a "multiple offender," it came during cross-examination which focused on why there was a 27-year delay in the crime being reported. The witness explained his father was an abusive drunk and he feared his retribution if he learned he had been sneaking out of the house.
"Do you understand now?" he asked the defense attorney. "What don't you understand?", and, finally he said, "No. This guy is a multiple offender."
The defense immediately moved for a mistrial and said that at a minimum, the statement needed to be stricken from the record and jury instructed to ignore it.
Judge Peter H. Bornstein refused to declare a mistrial, saying given the context the statement did not constitute "irreparable injustice that can't be cured by an instruction." The comment was stricken and the jury instructed to disregard it.
Ploof was the first person found to be a Violent Sexual Predator (VSP) and civilly committed for five years to the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord.
He had pleaded guilty in 1998 to aggravated felonious sexual assault and sexual assault and was sentenced to 4 to 10 years in prison. Just before completing his sentences, however, the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office initiated the process to civilly commit him as a VSP.
A trial was held, the jury found he was a violent sexual offender and he was civilly committed in 2009. In October 2011, he was indicted in Coos County for raping the 12-year-old in Berlin. His earliest release date on those convictions is Aug. 6, 2019.