Category Archives: Evidence

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.

Assault of a Child or Swimming Lesson?

Backlash over 'self-rescue' swimming classes for toddlers | News | The Times

In State v. Loos, the WA Court of Appeals held that although the defendant repeatedly submerged a toddler in a river during an impromptu swimming lesson, there was insufficient to establish that the defendant’s actions caused the toddler in her care to experience substantial pain that endured for a period of time long enough to cause considerable suffering.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Defendant Ms. Loos was babysitting J.T.S., a nonverbal, speech-delayed two-and-a-half-year-old toddler whom she had cared for throughout his infancy. Loos and a friend, Ms. Tetzlaff, decided to take a group of seven children to swim in the Jordan River that day.

While swimming in the river, Tetzlaff became concerned about Loos’s conduct. Tetzlaff testified that Loos picked up J.T.S. and said “it’s time to swim.” For the next minute – which was caught on camera – Loos engaged an impromptu swim lesson and tried teaching J.T.S. a swim technique called “infant self-rescue” by teaching him to float on his back.

In the 51-second video, Loos can be seen holding J.T.S. on his back in the water, and is heard telling him “when we scream, we go under.” After a moment, J.T.S. was submerged in the water for a few seconds and Loos pulled him back up out of the water. Loos repositioned J.T.S. on his back, at which point he began to struggle and tried to pull away. Loos told J.T.S. again not to scream and he was again submerged. This time, Loos had one hand under J.T.S. and one hand on his chest. At trial, Tetzlaff testified that Loos was “holding him under the water.” T.L. similarly testified he saw Loos push J.T.S. under water, and T.L. could see J.T.S. flailing his arms while submerged. When Loos lifted him out of the water, he came up coughing and screaming. Eventually, Loos ended the swim lesson.

On December 1, 2017, approximately two and a half years later, the State charged Loos with one count of assault of a child in the third degree. During trial, Loos moved to dismiss the charge for insufficient evidence. The trial court denied this motion, although it acknowledged its decision was a “close call.”

The jury found Loos guilty. She appealed on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

COURT’S RATIONALE & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals began by saying due process of law requires that the State prove every element of a charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain a criminal conviction.

Furthermore, the court cited State v. Green in saying that in order to evaluate whether sufficient evidence supports a conviction, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the State to determine if any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Dismissal with prejudice is required when there is insufficient evidence at the close of the prosecution’s case in-chief to sustain a charged offense,” said the Court of Appeals.

Next, the court gave the statutory definition of “bodily harm” as “physical pain or injury, illness, or an impairment of physical condition,” And that this pain or impairment must be accompanied by “substantial pain.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned whether there was sufficient evidence that T.J. suffered substantial pain from the swimming incident. “J.T.S.’s coughing when pulled out of the water caused him some physical pain,” said the Court. “But neither the testimony nor the 51-second video of the incident supports any contention that J.T.S. was unable to quickly and easily eliminate the water from his throat or that he remained in any pain once he did so.”

“The evidence was undisputed that J.T.S. did not require CPR, did not vomit, did not lose consciousness, did not appear to have any swelling of his belly, did not sustain any lung injury, and needed no medical treatment. There is no evidence J.T.S. was inconsolable as a result of any ongoing pain or that any momentary pain he may have experienced lasted for any period of time after he coughed and Loos removed him from the water.” ~WA Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals concluded by saying that no reasonable jury would find that J.T.S. suffered substantial pain that extended for a period sufficient to cause considerable suffering. With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Loos’s conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. The trial court erred when it denied Ms. Loos’ Motion to Dismiss pursuant to State v. Green. Better known as a Green Motion, this tactical trial maneuver allows defendants to request the judge dismiss criminal charges after the Prosecution has presented its evidence and rested its case.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face charges and the Prosecution has evidentiary proof problems. Hiring an effective and experienced attorney is the first and best step towards justice.

Victim’s Motive To Testify

Ulterior Motive

In State v. Bedada, the WA Court of Appeals held that in a domestic violence prosecution involving a citizen-victim and a non-citizen defendant, the trial judge mistakenly suppressed evidence of the victim’s knowledge that a criminal conviction would result in the defendant’s deportation.

BACKGROUND FACTS

After a series of alleged incidents of domestic violence, Mr. Bedada was charged with three counts of assault in the first degree and one count each of felony harassment, witness intimidation, and witness tampering.

All of these charges were primarily supported by the testimony of Mrs. Haile, who was the defendant’s wife.

At trial, the judge excluded evidence of Mr. Bedada’s non-citizen immigration status; and more specifically, that he would be deported if convicted of the crimes. As a result, Mr. Bedada was prevented from cross-examining Haile and revealing a motive for her to fabricate her testimony.

Bedada was convicted on all charges except two counts of assault in the first degree. He appeals on the argument that the judge’s decision to suppress his citizenship status was erroneous and without merit.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals explained that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of Washington’s constitution guarantee a defendant’s rights to confront the witnesses testifying against him.

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals said that under Evidence Rule (ER) 401, evidence is relevant if it tends to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence. Also, under ER 403,  relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury.”

Finally, the court explained that under ER 413(a), evidence of immigration status may only be admitted when the party seeking to admit the evidence follows the procedure set forth under the rule. ER 413(a) states,

“In any criminal matter, evidence of a party’s or a witness’s immigration status shall not be admissible unless immigration status is an essential fact to prove an element of, or a defense to, the criminal offense with which the defendant is charged, or to show bias or prejudice of a witness pursuant to ER 607.” (emphasis supplied).

The court analyzed the aforementioned rules and ultimately found that plainly, evidence of a motive to fabricate on the part of Mrs. Haile— whose testimony was the principal evidence supporting every charge against Bedada — could affect a fact finder’s analysis as to whether the facts alleged by Haile were true.

“No party disputed the reliability of evidence of Bedada’s noncitizenship,” said the court. “To the extent that the trial court engaged in a balancing of the probative value and prejudicial effect of the proffered evidence, it unfortunately omitted or misapplied several critical factors necessary to a proper analysis.”

Notably, the Court of Appeals also took issue that neither the Prosecutor nor the trial judge identified any prejudicial effect — specific to this case — that might result from the introduction of evidence of Bedada’s immigration status:

“The State’s assertion did not identify, with any particularity, the prejudice that the State would encounter beyond a generalized concern of immigration as a sensitive political issue. The lack of a specific, as opposed to merely a general, prejudicial effect is significant.”

Finally, the Court found it important that Mrs. Haile was the primary witness against Bedada in every charge against him.

“She was the State’s most important witness,” said the Court. “Demonstrating bias on the part of the key witness has long been deemed an important element of a defendant’s right to present a defense.

For all of these reasons, the Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court’s decision to exclude evidence of Mr. Bedada’s immigration status constituted an abuse of discretion. Consequently, the Court reversed Mr. Bedada’s convictions.

My opinion? Good decision. Although I sympathize with the victim’s plight, it is wrong for trial courts to suppress evidence of a victim’s ulterior motives for testifying. it is powerful, relevant and probative evidence establishing motive that the victim knew that the defendant would be deported if she testified against him. Defense counsel did a great job establishing a record for appeal.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are non-citizens charged with crimes. Hiring an effective and experienced criminal defense attorney is the best step toward justice.

Body Camera Evidence Admissible

Image result for body worn camera

In State v. Clayton, the WA Court of Appeals held that police body camera evidence does not violate Washington’s Privacy Act because police interactions with a suspect and witnesses or victims of the crime are not private conversations.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The charges arose from a visit by law enforcement to a Spokane home. On the evening in question, multiple officers responded to the residence following a report of shots being fired. Mr. Clayton let officers in the residence and consented to a search. There were six people in the residence in addition to the officers who entered. Three officers had active body cameras recording the investigation, but none of the residents were advised of that fact.

An officer discovered two revolvers in a dresser and also observed bullet holes in a couch, wall, and the floor. Upon learning that Mr. Clayton was ineligible to possess the revolvers, officers arrested him for unlawful possession of the weapons. The prosecutor charged two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm based on the October arrest. Clayton’s girlfriend told officers that one month earlier, Clayton had fired a shot in the apartment that struck the couch on which she was sitting.

Ultimately, the prosecutor charged Clayton with one count of second degree assault and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm for the September incident, as well as two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm for the two weapons recovered in October.

After conducting a CrR 3.6 hearing on a defense motion to suppress the recordings, the court permitted the video evidence only to the point where the officer discovered the guns and arrested Clayton. Body camera footage from one of the officers was played for the jury at trial. The jury acquitted Clayton on the assault charge, but convicted him of all three
unlawful possession charges.

COURT’S ANALYSIS

On appeal, Mr. Clayton argues that the police body camera recording was made in violation of the “Privacy Act,” rendering the evidence inadmissible.

The Court of Appeals  ultimately ruled, however, that because the police interaction with Mr. Clayton and his family was not a private conversation, there was no error.

The Court described how the Privacy Act prohibits recording a private communication unless all parties to the communication consent. Consequently, any information obtained from unknown recordings is inadmissible in court.

More specifically, a communication is private under the act when (1) the parties have a subjective expectation that it is private, and (2) that expectation is objectively reasonable.  Among other things, the subject matter of the calls, the location of the participants, the potential presence of third parties, and the roles of the participants are relevant to whether the call is private.

When it comes to body-worn cameras, law enforcement may record people who have been arrested upon (i) informing the person that a recording is being made, (ii) stating the time of the beginning and ending of the recording in the recording, and (iii) advising the person at the commencement of the recording of his or her constitutional rights. In addition, (iv) the recording may be used only for valid police or court activities. Finally, the person must be told that he or she is being recorded. However, there is no requirement that the individual consent to the recording.

In short, the Court reasoned that conversations with uniformed, on-duty law enforcement officers are typically not private conversations.

“People understand that information they provide to officers conducting an investigation is going to turn up in written police reports and may be reported in court along with the observations made by the officers . . . The conversations took place in his apartment, a place where he had some subjective expectation of privacy, but they also occurred in the presence of five others. The subject matter of the visit—a report of a gun being fired and subsequent search for the weapon—was not a private one.”

Consequently, the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress and upheld his convictions.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and the evidence involves recordings from police body-worn cameras.

Inventory Searches, Automatic Standing, & Stolen Vehicles.

Image result for meth in car

In State v. Peck, the WA Supreme Court found that persons found in possession of a stolen vehicle may challenge the search of that vehicle.  However, closed containers, other than items that “possess the same aura of privacy as a purse, shaving kit, or personal luggage” and locked containers, may be opened  during an inventory search of a stolen vehicle.  The search, of course, must not be used as a pretext for an investigatory search.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Two Kittitas County sheriffs deputies responded to a suspected theft in progress at a home in rural Ellensburg. When the deputies arrived, they discovered two individuals outside the home, along with a pickup truck stuck in the driveway’s unplowed snow. The deputies handcuffed the two men and eventually learned that they were Mr. Peck and Clark Tellvik. Two more deputies then arrived. One of them entered the pickup truck’s license plate into a law-enforcement database and learned that the truck had been reported stolen.

Officers impounded the vehicle. They searched the pickup without obtaining a search warrant because they believed that Peck and Tellvik did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a stolen vehicle. Police discovered methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia inside the vehicle.

Peck and Tellvik were charged with several crimes, including possession of a stolen vehicle and possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. The defendants moved to suppress the contraband found in the black zippered nylon case. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding the inventory search to be proper and finding no evidence of pretext. A jury subsequently convicted each defendant of the charged drug possession and stolen vehicle offenses. Peck and Tellvik were subsequently convicted. Both appealed their controlled substance convictions. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress. The WA Supreme Court granted review.

ISSUES

  1. Whether defendants have standing to challenge the scope of a warrantless inventory search of a vehicle when that vehicle is stolen.
  2. Whether a proper inventory search extends to opening an innocuous, unlocked container of unknown ownership found in a stolen vehicle associated with defendants who were apprehended while burglarizing a home.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

  1. Defendants have standing to challenge the scope of a warrantless inventory search of a vehicle, even when that vehicle is stolen.

First, the WA Supreme Court held the defendants have standing to challenge the search. It reasoned that a defendant has automatic standing to challenge a search if (1) possession is an essential element of the charged offense and (2) the defendant was in possession
of the contraband at the time of the contested search or seizure. And a defendant
has automatic standing to challenge the legality of a seizure even though he or
she could not technically have a privacy interest in such property.

“Peck and Tellvik have automatic standing to challenge the inventory search,” said the Court. It reasoned that the first prong of the test was satisfied because both were charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. Furthermore, the second prong is satisfied because Peck and Tellvik were in possession of the truck up until the time of the search. “As such, Peck and Tellvik have automatic standing to
challenge the warrantless inventory search of the black zippered nylon case.”

2. A proper inventory search extends to opening an unlocked container of unknown ownership found in a stolen vehicle.

The WA Supreme Court began by saying that warrantless searches are unreasonable. Despite that rule, a warrantless search is valid if one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. One of those narrow exceptions is a noninvestigatory inventory search. Inventory searches have long been recognized as a practical necessity.

“To be valid, inventory searches must be conducted in good faith and not as a pretext for an investigatory search.”

The court explained that Inventory searches are also limited in both scope and purpose. They are permissible because they (1) protect the vehicle owner’s (or occupants’) property, (2) protect law enforcement agencies/officers and temporary storage bailees from false claims of theft, and (3) protect police officers and the public from potential danger. Unlike a probable cause search and search incident to arrest, officers conducting an inventory search perform an administrative or caretaking function.

The Court reasoned that under these circumstances, it was proper for police to do more than merely inventory the unlocked nylon case as a sealed unit. First, the police knew the vehicle was stolen. Second, Peck and Tellvik were arrested while in the process of burglarizing a home and were observed taking items from the home and its surroundings. Responding officers testified that a purpose in conducting an inventory search of the truck was to determine ownership of both the truck and its various contents. Third, the search was not pretextual. And finally, the innocuous nature of the container at issue is important: a nylon case that looked like it contained CDs does not possess the same aura of privacy as a purse, shaving kit, or personal luggage.

“Here, where the vehicle was stolen, Peck and Tellvik were arrested immediately outside of a home that they were currently  burglarizing, and the trial court explicitly found no evidence of pretext, the search was proper.”

The WA Supreme Court concluded that under the facts of this case, the search was a lawful inventory search. Accordingly, it reversed the Court of Appeals and upheld the denial of the motion to suppress. Justices Gordon McCloud, Madsen, Yu, and Chief Justice Fairhurst dissented.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving vehicle searches. It is imperative to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who will defend your rights.

Court Denies “Community Caretaking” Argument

Image result for community caretaking police

In State v. Beach, the WA Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a defendant’s Possession of Stolen Vehicle charges because the police failed to obtain a search warrant and the Community Custody Exception to the warrant requirement did not apply.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On November 27, 2017, a person called 911 to report a young child walking by himself. Officer Nixon responded to the 911 report, and took custody of the child. Officer Nixon decided to drive around the neighborhood to look for the child’s home.

Eventually, the officer saw a house with its front door open. He ran the license plate of the car in the driveway and learned that the car had been reported stolen. He called for backup. At that point, the officer’s interest in determining whether the child lived at the house was secondary to figuring out if this was a home invasion robbery.

Officers arrived. They surrounded the house, with one or two officers going to the back of the house in case someone tried to exit from the back door. Officers knocked loudly on the outside of the house and announced themselves for approximately 30 seconds. When there was no answer, they drew their guns and entered the house, yelling, “This is the Kent Police Department. Come out with your hands up!”

Mr. Beach and his girlfriend Ms. Hall emerged from a rear bedroom. They said that they were sleeping. The officers discovered the couple had outstanding warrants. The officers arrested Beach and Hall. While searching Beach upon arrest, the police found a key to the stolen car in the driveway.

The State charged Beach with one count of possession of a stolen vehicle. Beach moved to suppress any evidence resulting from the warrantless search.

The State argued that the warrantless search was valid under the community caretaking exception because there was real and immediate danger of an ongoing home invasion. The trial court conducted a hearing pursuant to CrR 3.6. After hearing testimony by officers, the court found that the State had not established that the officers were acting within the scope of their community caretaking function, and suppressed the evidence.

Beach moved to dismiss and the court granted the motion. The State appealed.

COURT’S RATIONALE & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals explained that the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Also, the WA constitution is often more protective than the Fourth Amendment, particularly where warrantless searches are concerned.

“Under our state constitution, warrantless searches are per se unreasonable unless one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies,” said the Court. “The burden of proof is on the State to show that a warrantless search or seizure falls within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement.”

A. Community Caretaking Exception to the Warrant Requirement.

The Court said the community caretaking function exception encompasses situations involving emergency aid, and also routine checks on health and safety. Compared with routine checks on health and safety, the emergency aid function involves circumstances of greater urgency and searches resulting in greater intrusion.

Under the health and safety check test, the State must show that (1) the officer subjectively believed someone needed health or safety assistance, (2) a reasonable person in the same situation would believe that there was a need for assistance, and (3) there was a reasonable basis to associate the need for assistance with the place searched.

Also, the State must also show that the encounter under this exception was reasonable, which depends on a balancing of the individual’s interest in freedom from police interference against the public’s interest in having the police perform a community caretaking function. Finally, the State must show that a reasonable person in the same situation would believe that there was a need for assistance.

The Court reasoned that here, there was a 911 report about a child wandering blocks away. When Nixon stopped his police car outside of the residence, the child did not indicate that he had any connection to the house. No connection between the child and the house was established until after the officers entered. “Any concern for the child was not an ongoing emergency that would merit the officers going into the home,” said the Court.

And here, the officers did not know of any requests for help from the house before they entered. They did not know anyone was unaccounted for and saw no evidence anyone had been injured. The officers did not see any broken windows, signs of forced entry, or other evidence of a break-in. Once in the doorway, Officer Nixon did not see anything in disarray inside the home that would indicate a struggle or ongoing emergency. When the officers went into the home, the house was in “fine condition.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision that the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement did not apply and suppressed the evidence.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and police conducted their search under the “Community Caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement. Possibly, evidence obtained through the search could be suppressed and the charges dismissed.

Neuroscience Defense

Illustration of man holding knife while being controlled by DNA puppet strings.
Incredibly interesting article by reporter Jon Schuppe of NBC News discusses how more criminal defendants are turning to brain science to argue that they shouldn’t face harsh punishment.

Mr. Schuppe’s story focused on the criminal defense of a man named Anthony Blas Yepez who was convicted of second degree murder and also suffered from a rare genetic abnormality linked to sudden violent outbursts. Here, Yepez discovered that a genetic deficiency — a variant of a gene named MAO-A, which regulates aggressive behavior in men — along with abuse he had suffered as a child were partly to blame for his crime. As of now, the New Mexico Supreme Court is considering whether Mr Yepez’ appeal on the issue of whether he was in control of himself when he committed the crime.

The court’s decision — still months away — could accelerate a trend in the criminal justice system: the use of behavioral genetics and other neuroscience research, including the analysis of tumors and chemical imbalances, to explain why criminals break the law. The rapidly developing field is forcing officials to confront new questions about how changes in the brain influence behavior — leading some to rethink notions about guilt and punishment.

According to Schuppe’s article, this cutting-edge evidence, collected through brain scans, psychological exams and genetic sequencing, has been deployed in a range of ways: to challenge whether a defendant was capable of premeditated murder, whether a defendant was competent to stand trial, whether a defendant should be put to death. Most of those attempts to use neuroscience as a defense have failed, researchers say. But some — about 20 percent, according to one study — have worked, winning defendants new hearings or reversals of convictions.

Mr. Yepez’s genetic mutation was first documented in 1993 in members of a Dutch family with a severe version that has since been found in a handful of families worldwide. There are less extreme, and less rare, versions that have been linked to an increased risk of criminal convictions — but only among men who also suffered from abuse as children. Some researchers began dubbing MAO-A the “warrior gene,” a term that was picked up by documentary filmmakers, talk show hosts and consumer-DNA testing companies.

Mr. Yepez’s defense attorney Ian Loyd went online and found a commercial genetic testing company, FamilyTreeDNA, that charges $99 to determine if someone has the MAO-A deficiency. He had one of his investigators visit Yepez at the Santa Fe County jail, where he swabbed Yepez’s cheek for cells. A few weeks later, the results came back positive.

At trial, attorney Loyd tried admitting the evidence to the jury. Unfortunately, the trial judge suppressed the evidence. Afterward, the jury ─ unaware of Yepez’s genetic mutation ─ convicted him of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison. His lawyers said they hope the state Supreme Court will grant him a new trial, this time using the genetic evidence to help explain the killing.

Helen Bennett, the lawyer representing Yepez before the state Supreme Court, said the case will test how neuroscience is complicating determinations of whether someone intended to commit a crime.

“These genetic markers and the way we’re learning how they operate in the brain makes the determination of intent much more nuanced,” Bennett said.

A GROWING STRATEGY

According to Schuppe’s article, the growth of neuroscience evidence — typically in the form of brain scans and psychological tests — dates back about three decades. It has most often been used to seek leniency for juveniles or against the death penalty for killers. But the strategy has expanded to a wider set of cases.

Behavior is determined by a multitude of forces within the brain, with genes only providing a starting point, researchers say. A person’s experiences or environment play a large role. And it’s difficult to show a direct cause and effect involving a particular condition.

“Year after year, more and more criminal defendants are using neuroscience to bolster their claims of decreased responsibility for their criminal conduct and decreased moral culpability relevant to their sentencing,” said Nita Farahany, a law and philosophy professor at Duke University who wrote in a study published in the January issue of the Annual Review of Criminology.

Many scientists and researchers point out that prosecutors, too, might one day seize on neuroscientific evidence, using it to argue that a defendant is dangerous and should be punished harshly.

My opinion? It’s utterly fascinating how our advancements in science can magnify and cross over into actual defenses in criminal law. Is it nature, nurture or a combination of both which leads people to commit crimes?

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and a brain abnormality may be the cause. I’ve achieved excellent results for clients having diagnosable brain injuries and/or suffered from other medical issues like slow-wave sleep,  which is a sleepwalking disorder associated with violent behavior. These medical ailments, and others like them, can support a Diminished Capacity defense.

Marijuana & Necessity

Image result for marijuana medically necessary

In State v. Ruelas, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defendant in possession of more than 40 grams of marijuana who asserts a necessity defense must present a medical expert witness to support the defense.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On November 10, 2015, Sergeant Garcia stopped Mr. Ruelas for speeding. Mr. Ruelas rolled down his window and gave Sergeant Garcia his license and registration. Sergeant Garcia smelled marijuana coming from the pickup truck. He asked Mr. Ruelas about the smell and asked him to roll down his rear window. Mr. Ruelas complied, and Sergeant Garcia saw a large garbage bag containing marijuana. Sergeant Garcia then arrested Mr. Ruelas for felony possession of marijuana.

Mr. Ruelas said he had a medical marijuana card but did not provide one. Sergeant Garcia then read Mr. Ruelas his Miranda rights.

On February 26, 2016, the State charged Mr. Ruelas with one count of possession of marijuana over 40 grams.

On June 13, 2016, the trial court held a CrR 3.5 hearing. The court found that Mr. Ruelas’s initial pre-Miranda statement was the result of a routine processing question and that his additional statements were made either spontaneously and not in response to a question likely to produce an incriminating response. The court denied Mr. Ruelas’s suppression motion. After the court’s ruling, Mr. Ruelas requested a continuance to find an expert witness.

After two more continuances, on October 18, 2016, Mr. Ruelas filed his final witness list. However, the list did not include a medical expert.

On October 25, 2016, trial began. The court addressed motions in limine and questioned Mr. Ruelas about his defense of medical necessity. Mr. Ruelas explained that he was asserting the common law defense of medical necessity, not the statutory defense under the Washington State Medical Use of Cannabis Act. The State objected to the defense on the basis that Mr. Ruelas could not lay a proper foundation without having a medical expert testify. The court agreed, and did not allow testimony from Mr. Ruelas’s expert.

The trial resumed, closing arguments were given, and the jury found Mr. Ruelas guilty. He appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & DISCUSSION

The WA Court of Appeals found that the Necessity defense required medical testimony. It reasoned that a defendant asserting the necessity defense must prove four elements by a preponderance of the evidence. The four elements are: (1) the defendant reasonably believed the commission of the crime was necessary to avoid or minimize the harm, (2) the harm sought to be avoided was greater than the harm resulting from a violation of the law, (3) the threatened harm was not brought about by the defendant, and (4) no reasonable legal alternative was available that is as effective as marijuana.

Here, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the defendant was required to show corroborating medical evidence that no other legal drugs were as effective in minimizing the effects of the disease. Furthermore, it reasoned that it made sense that the expert could testify to knowing the qualities of other drugs, not just the personal preference of the defendant.

The Court of Appeals also disagreed with Mr. Ruelas’s arguments that the trial court wrongfully disallowed Mr. Ruelas’s expert witness from testifying. In fact, the Court actually addressed whether Mr. Ruelas himself should be sanctioned for violating the discovery rule that parties must disclose their witnesses well before trial begins:

“A trial court may sanction a criminal defendant under CrR 4.7(h)(7)(i) for failing to comply with discovery deadlines by excluding the testimony of a defense witness.”

Here, however, the trial court did not sanction Mr. Ruelas’s for the late disclosure of his expert witness.

“Our review of the record convinces us that Mr. Ruelas did not act willfully or in bad faith,” said the Court of Appeals. “Mr. Ruelas explained that it was difficult to obtain his mother’s medical records, which Dr. Carter needed to review. Mr. Ruelas also expressed difficulty in communicating with Dr. Carter, who he described as very busy.”

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals also rejected Ruelas’s arguments that the trial court abused its discretion when it precluded Ruelas’s expert witness from testifying. “Mr. Ruelas does not cite any authority that holds that a trial court abuses its discretion when it precludes an expert disclosed during trial from testifying,” said the Court of Appeals. “We presume there is no authority.”

Autopsy Photos Admitted

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In State v. Whitaker, the WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court properly admitted 15 of 100 autopsy photographs over the objection of the defendant who was charged with aggravated murder. The probative value of the photographs in helping to illustrate the medical examiner’s testimony outweighed their prejudicial effect.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Mr. Whitaker was charged with helping his friend Mr. Anderson and several others kidnap and Ms. Burkheimer, who was Anderson’s ex-girlfriend. Whitaker helped to bind, hide, and transport Burkheimer. He helped to dig her grave, rob her, bury her, and destroy evidence
of her murder.

At trial, the court admitted 15 autopsy photographs during the testimony of the medical examiner. The medical examiner testified that around 100 photographs were taken during Burkheimer’s autopsy and that the 15 selected for trial showed the injuries to Burkheimer’s body, what the medical examiner looked at when he decided where the bullet exit and entry wounds were, and how Burkheimer’s injuries related to one another.

The jury found Whitaker guilty of premeditated first degree murder, with an aggravating factor of kidnapping and a firearm enhancement, and conspiracy to commit first degree murder. During the trial, Whitaker moved for a mistrial several times, alleging numerous errors were made during trial; one of the errors being whether the trial court improperly admitted the photographs of the victim’s autopsy.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals upheld Whitaker’s conviction and reasoned that accurate photographic representations are admissible, even if gruesome, if their probative value outweighs their prejudicial effect.

“A bloody, brutal crime cannot be explained to a jury in a lily-white manner.”

“The admission of autopsy photographs is in the sound discretion of the trial court,” said the Court of Appeals. “Photographs have probative value where they are used to illustrate or explain the testimony of the pathologist performing the autopsy. Unless it is clear from the record that the primary reason to admit gruesome photographs is to inflame the jury’s passion, appellate courts will uphold the decision of the trial court.” Furthermore, reasoned the Court, the law requires an exercise of restraint, not a preclusion simply because other less inflammatory testimonial evidence is available.

The medical examiner’s testimony explaining the photographs and his conclusions about Burkheimer’s injuries was straightforward and not inflammatory.

“There is no doubt that these photographs are disturbing,” said the court. “But this was a brutal crime, and the record does not show that the primary reason for admitting the photographs was to inflame the jury.” Rather, reasoned the Court, the photographs were admitted to support the testimony of the medical examiner. “The State did not offer all 100 of the photographs but instead selected 15 that best illustrated Burkheimer’s injuries,” said the Court. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting them.

With that, the Court of Appeals upheld Mr. Whitaker’s conviction and sentence.

My opinion? The admissibility of evidence is one of the most important battles in trial practice. Courts conduct balancing tests on this issue under Evidence Rules 401, 402 and 403. Under these evidence rules, judges can admit evidence which is relevant and probative as long as the evidence is also not prejudicial to the defendant’s case.  Prejudicial evidence includes evidence which may inflame the passions of the jury. Understandably, however, the prejudicial effect can be outweighed by the probative value. In this case, the probative value of the medical examiner’s testimony outweighed the prejudicial effect these photos may have had on the jury.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving photographic evidence which could be prejudicial to the case.

Rape Kit Backlog Resolved

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Survivors of sexual assaults in Washington state can now track the progress of their kits being analyzed through a new online portal.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that the Washington State Patrol has implemented this week the online tracking system for sexual assault kits to allow survivors, as well as lawyers, medical staff and law enforcement to follow the testing process.

The state completed an inventory of untested sexual assault kits last month, counting 6,460 kits that had not yet been submitted by law enforcement agencies across the state for lab testing. The oldest untested kit dated back to 1982.
Larry Hebert, director of the patrol’s forensic laboratory services bureau, says a kit can take four to six weeks to process.
My opinion? This is a great development in the right direction. Alleged victims who believed they were sexually assaulted should be encouraged to get rape kit examinations as soon as possible; and should also have assurances that the evidence will be handled quickly. Oftentimes, a sexual assault allegations come down to  “He said / She said” arguments with very little to virtually no proof of sexual assault. Rape kit exams help solve this problem.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with sexual assault. It’s imperative to find a qualified and competent defense attorney who can navigate the investigations, argue pretrial motions, conduct witness interviews and possibly go to trial.