State v. Gunderson: Court Decides Prior “Bad Acts” of Domestic Violence Are Inadmissible

Good opinion. In State v. Gunderson, the Court of Appeals decided a trial judge improperly allowed evidence of the defendant’s “prior bad acts” of domestic violence under Evidence Rule (ER) 404(b) at the defendant’s jury trial.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/892971.pdf

Here, the State charged defendant Daniel Scott Gunderson with Domestic Violence Felony Violation of a Court Order for a September 2010 altercation between himself and Christina Moore, his ex-girlfriend. At trial, Ms. Moore testified that no assault occurred. Although she made no prior statements about the incident, let alone an inconsistent statement, the State sought to introduce evidence of a 911 Call to police and also Gunderson’s prior domestic violence against Ms. Moore to impeach her credibility and show that she was a “recanting” domestic violence victim who was unduly influenced by the defendant. The trial judge admitted this evidence over Gunderson’s ER 404(b) objection. Gunderson argued that the trial court should have excluded evidence of his prior bad acts under ER 404(b).

Some background is necessary. Under ER 404(b), evidence of a defendant’s “Prior Bad Acts” is inadmissible for the purpose of proving a person’s character and showing that the person acted in conformity with that character. The same evidence may, however, be admissible for any other purpose, depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of unfair prejudice.

For evidence of prior bad acts to be admissible, a trial judge must ( 1) find by a preponderance of the evidence that the misconduct occurred, (2) identify the purpose for which the evidence is sought to be introduced, (3) determine whether the evidence is relevant to prove an element of the crime charged, and (4) weigh the probative value against the prejudicial effect.

Here, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the probative value of the prior DV evidence was outweighed by its significant prejudicial effect. It stated the following:

“Much like in cases involving sexual crimes, courts must be careful and methodical in weighing the probative value against the prejudicial effect of prior acts in domestic violence cases because the risk of unfair prejudice is very high. To guard against this heightened prejudicial effect, we confine the admissibility of prior acts of domestic violence to cases where the State has established their overriding probative value, such as to explain a witness’s otherwise inexplicable recantation or conflicting account of events. Otherwise, the jury may well put too great a weight on a past conviction and use the evidence for an improper purpose.”

The Court of Appeals further reasoned that the trial court’s error was not harmless, and that it is reasonably probable that the admission of the two domestic violence convictions materially affected the outcome of the trial. Consequently, and given the above analysis the Court of Appeals revered the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case to a new trial.

My opinion? This decision was very reasonable, even-handed opinion which was effectively based on the law. The logic makes sense. Because the victim did not make conflicting statements and did not recant and the State did not articulate some other compelling justification, the probative value of this evidence is limited in comparison to its significant prejudicial effect. Not only was it manifestly unreasonable for the trial court to admit this evidence, it was also reasonably probable that the jury would have reached a different outcome. Good opinion.