Category Archives: ER 402

Right to Present A Defense

Criminal Defendant Constitutional Rights- New Mexico Criminal Law

In State v. Cox, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court mistakenly excluded evidence pursuant to the Rape Shield Statute  that the victim flirted with the defendant and sat on his lap at the party where the unlawful sexual contact occurred.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The incident occurred in the early morning hours at the complaining witness’s house after her birthday party. The complaining witness testified that after she fell asleep in her bed, she was awakened by the defendant digitally raping her. The State presented evidence that Mr. Cox’s DNA was found on the complaining witness’s undergarments.

Mr. Cox denied the accusation entirely and testified that the complaining witness was intoxicated and that he had rejected her advances. Nevertheless, he was charged and convicted of Rape in the Second Degree.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the Rape Shield Statute does not apply to behavior that is contemporaneous with the alleged rape. Here, the victim flirted with the defendant and sat on his lap at the party. That evidence should not have been suppressed. In addition, the statute does not apply to evidence, which was offered to explain how the victim’s intoxication affected her behavior and memory of that night and that there may have been an innocent explanation for the DNA transfer.

“The excluded evidence in this case was not past behavior; it was contemporaneous with the alleged rape. Nor was it being introduced to show consent. And while it was being introduced to discredit the victim’s credibility, the focus was on her level of intoxication, not on allegations of promiscuity. Thus, application of the Rape Shield Statute in these circumstances was untenable and an abuse of discretion.” ~ WA Court of Appeals.

The Court also decided the trial court wrongfully suppressed evidence of the alleged victim’s behavior with the Defendant at the party:

“Evidence that the victim was highly intoxicated, acting in a manner that was uncharacteristically flirtatious, and sitting on Mr. Cox’s lap in a dress, was ‘highly relevant’ to his theory of the defense. The prejudicial value of this evidence, if any, was low.” ~ WA Court of Appeals.

Also, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court erred by sustaining an objection to a hypothetical question that defense posed to the State’s DNA expert during cross-examination. Here, Mr. Cox tried to present expert testimony evidence that it was possible for his DNA to be transferred to the complaining witness’s underwear through innocent, non-sexual contact such as sitting on his lap. The Court of Appeals disagreed, and held that an expert witness may be cross-examined with hypotheticals yet unsupported by the evidence that go to the opponent’s theory of the case.

“The lap-sitting incident provides an explanation as to how Mr. Cox’s DNA might have been transferred to the complaining witness. The witness’s inability to recall this incident calls into question her ability to remember other events from that night. And her flirtatious behavior with Mr. Cox supports his version of events.” ~ WA Court of Appeals.

Next, the Court of Appeals reasoned the trial court’s exclusion of the Defendant’s reputation evidence on the particular character trait of sexual morality was wrong. “Contrary to the trial court’s position, “this type” of evidence is explicitly
admissible under ER 404(a)(1),” said the Court.

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court’s errors mentioned above were not harmless. It reversed Mr. Cox’s conviction and remanded for a new trial.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a Sex Offense or any other crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Right to Present a Defense

1538.5 Motions To Suppress Evidence In California

In State v. Jennings, the WA Court of Appeals held the trial court’s exclusion of a shooting victim’s toxicology report indicating the victim had methamphetamine in his body at the time of his death did not violate the defendant’s constitutional right to present a defense.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On the date of the incident, the defendant Mr. Jennings accompanied his friend Mr. Redman to get Redman’s car from a mobile home in Puyallup, Washington. Redman had been living there, but had recently been kicked out. Drug activity occurred there. Jennings was there to defuse any hostilities between Redman and others at the house. Jennings armed himself with bear spray and a gun.

When they arrived, Jennings was on high alert. He knew violent events had recently occurred there. His friend Mr. Redman got into an argument with Mr. Burton, an individual at the house. Redman had his gun out. Jennings was familiar with the behavior of people who consumed methamphetamine. He realized that both Redman and Burton were high on methamphetamine and acting aggressively.

Burton and Redman argued about Redman’s car and then began to scuffle, wrestling in the foyer of the house. Jennings sprayed his bear spray at them to break up the fight. Burton then turned around and started walking toward Jennings, who backed up. Jennings believed Burton had Redman’s gun.

Jennings feared for his life. He was afraid Burton was reacting violently because he was high on methamphetamine. Jennings fired his gun and hit Burton twice. Burton died at the scene shortly after the shooting and before the ambulance arrived.

Jennings was arrested the next day. He was charged with second degree intentional murder (RCW 9A.32.050(1)(a)), second degree felony murder predicated on second degree assault (RCW 9A.32.050(1)(b)), and unlawful possession of a firearm.

At trial, Jennings claimed at trial that he shot Burton in self-defense. However, the judge excluded the toxicology report showing that Burton had methamphetamine in his body at the time of his death.  A jury found Jennings guilty of second degree felony murder.

Jennings appealed on numerous issues, including arguments that the trial court violated his constitutional right to present a defense by excluding a toxicology report showing that Burton had methamphetamine in his body at the time of his death.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals began by emphasizing that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to present a defense under the Sixth Amendment. Furthermore, evidence of self-defense must be assessed from the standpoint of the reasonably prudent person standing in the shoes of the defendant, knowing all the defendant knows and seeing all the defendant sees. Finally, the court reasoned that evidence that might impact a defendant’s assessment of the danger presented, like the victim’s prior specific violent acts, is admissible only if known to the defendant when the incident occurred.

“In analyzing the Sixth Amendment right to present a defense, we balance the State’s interest in excluding the toxicology report against Jennings’s need for evidence showing that his subjective fear was reasonable,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court further reasoned that in this case, the toxicology report did not have extremely high probative value and it did not constitute Jennings’s entire defense. “At trial, Jennings testified that what he observed on the day of the shooting gave rise to his subjective fear . . . his belief that Burton was high on methamphetamine,” said the Court.

“Jennings has not shown that there was a reasonable probability that any additional corroboration from the toxicology report would have materially changed the result at trial,” said the Court. “We hold that even if the trial court abused its discretion by excluding the toxicology report under ER 401 and 402, this ruling was harmless error.”

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Jennings’ conviction.

My opinion? Evidentiary and legal issues aside, these facts are terribly tragic. My heart goes out to the friends and families of all who were impacted by this. From a legal standpoint, however, It appears the WA Court of Appeals conducted a basic balancing test under Washington’s Rules of Evidence and determined that the toxicology report of the victim’s meth/blood levels was neither probative nor relevant at trial.

Under Washington’s Rules of Evidence, relevant evidence is defined in ER 401 as “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence. ER 402 provides that evidence which is not relevant is not admissible. Finally, ER 403 provides that relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by, among other things, the danger of unfair prejudice.

Here, the Court of Appeals was convinced that Mr. Jennings’ self-defense theory was properly supported by his testimony that he responded in self-defense to the victim’s meth-induced attack. Therefore, no other evidence was necessary to admit more evidence that the victim was high on meth. Jennings’ testimony, by itself, was enough. Any additional evidence on that issue was therefore cumulative, repetitive, unnecessary and potentially prejudicial to the State’s case under ER 403.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and self-defense is a possible defense. It’s important to hire an experienced criminal defense trial attorney who understands the law, the rules of evidence and how both contribute to trial defenses.