A set of three 2-1 decisions this morning from the District of Columbia Court of Appeals show a court divided on what types of evidence can be introduced by prosecutors at trial and hearings.
In all three cases, the majority upheld the challenged convictions, but one attorney has already said he expects to petition for a rehearing before the full court, based in part on the dissenting opinion in his case.
That attorney, Washington solo practitioner Thomas Heslep, argued on behalf of Ricardo Jones, who was appealing his first degree murder and weapons convictions. In Jones’ case, the appeals court split (PDF) on whether evidence from another crime Jones was accused of committing could be introduced at trial.
Jones was accused of fatally shooting a man in July 2005, after the man exchanged words with Jones’ friend, Joseph Leaks, according to the opinion. Jones and Leaks then went to North Carolina, where they allegedly carried out an armed robbery in August of that same year.
In Jones’ appeal, he argued, among other things, that the trial judge should not have allowed prosecutors to introduce evidence relating to the North Carolina armed robbery, including a surveillance video that showed a security guard being shot.
Jones’ attorney argued that the evidence would prejudice the jury. Prosecutors argued that the North Carolina evidence would link Jones to the gun used in the July 2005 murder, and corroborate the testimony of Leaks’ jail cellmate, who claimed Leaks told him about both crimes.
Judges John Fisher and Michael Farrell agreed with prosecutors, writing that the evidence went directly to the issue of identity, and that the prosecutors were not misusing the evidence to prove a general point that Jones was predisposed to break the law. Judge Vanessa Ruiz disagreed, writing that the North Carolina evidence, especially the surveillance video, prejudiced Jones and warranted a new trial.
“As our cases throughout the years bear out, other crimes evidence may be unfairly prejudicial even where the prosecutor did not intend to use it to show a predisposition to commit a crime,” Ruiz wrote.
In another case decided today, the court split (PDF) on allowing testimony on a dying man’s utterances naming his alleged attacker. The appellant, Martin Brown, was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his grandfather, Howard Brown. Neighbors who found Howard Brown testified hearing Brown name his grandson, Martin Brown, as the assailant.
Hearsay testimony is rarely allowed, but one exception is made for “excited utterances,” where a person makes a “spontaneous declaration” soon after going through some kind of shock. Martin Brown’s attorney argued that the evidence didn’t support Howard Brown’s behavior meeting the standard for being in shock and that it was unclear how much time had passed between the assault and Howard Brown’s statements.
Judges Kathryn Oberly and Phyllis Thompson sided with prosecutors, but Judge John Fisher disagreed. Fisher wrote that there was no evidence Howard Brown was excitable, since he was able to answer a number of questions posed by his neighbors. Fisher also found that the uncertainty over how much time had passed was a problem, as well as the fact that Howard Brown had named his grandson in response to questions, as opposed to spontaneously.
In the third case, the court upheld (PDF) a guilty finding of incest for a 14-year-old male, D.W., who was charged with impregnating an 11-year-old female, D.S., who was believed to be his sister. D.W.’s attorneys argued that the evidence was inconclusive that D.W. and D.S. have the same father, since the father said that without a blood test, he couldn’t be sure.
D.W.’s attorney argued that under D.C. law, the city should have presented a paternity test to prove that D.W. and D.S. are related. Judges Frank Schwelb and Stephen Glickman sided with the city, writing that the father’s comments, when taken all together, show he had clearly named D.W. and D.S. as his children.
Judge Phyllis Thompson dissented, writing that besides the comments about the blood test, the father had also given inconsistent testimony on how many children he had. Thompson wrote that given the seriousness of an incest charge, the court should have required the city to produce a paternity test if there was any doubt.
A representative for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, which represented D.W. and Brown, did not immediately return a request for comment. The U.S. attorney’s office, which prosecuted Jones and Brown, and the city’s Office of the Attorney General, which argued on the city’s behalf in D.W.’s case, declined to comment.