Sharon Moskowitz was murdered in her Northwest Washington home more than 15 years ago. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals heard arguments this morning on whether the jury should learn that the man arrested in her death, Frederick Morton, was believed to be a heroin addict at the time.
In a twist on usual appeals court proceedings in criminal cases, the government, not the defense, appealed District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Thomas Motley's ruling that such evidence would be unfairly prejudicial and was, as a result, inadmissible.
The case presents a new challenge to longstanding precedent on the admissibility of uncharged crimes. The court has created stiff barriers for admitting such evidence in the past, finding that its probative value is often outweighed by the prejudice it creates against a defendant.
Moskowitz was found strangled to death on Jan. 21, 1997, according to court filings. Several hours after the murder, credit cards stolen from other residents of the house were used to make purchases at a gas station and several grocery stores.
Morton was arrested in 2009 following a lengthy police investigation, based in large part on witnesses who identified him from grocery store surveillance videos. He was charged with felony murder, burglary, kidnapping and robbery.
The government’s theory was that Morton committed the burglary to support a heroin addiction, and that Moskowitz was killed when she interrupted him. Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Danello said in arguments today that elements of the crime only made sense in the context of a drug addiction, from motive to the recklessness of someone who has just committed murder using credit cards stolen from the crime scene.
One piece of evidence cited heavily by the government was an open container of orange juice found near Moskowitz’s body. The government’s theory is that Morton opened the container and drank the juice after killing Moskowitz, fueled by a need for sugary substances common among heroin addicts.
“The trial court has cut out the before, the during, and part of the after of what really happened,” she told the court.
Associate Judges Stephen Glickman and Phyllis Thompson, and Senior Judge John Steadman heard the case. Glickman told Danello that the government’s argument “troubles me.” He said he was worried that a ruling for the government would “open the doors” to admitting evidence of drug use in cases where it historically has not been allowed. Specific to this case, Glickman said he felt the drug use evidence would go more towards Morton’s “propensity” to commit crime, as opposed to proof that he committed the crime in question.
Jonathan Anderson of the D.C. Public Defender Service disagreed with the government’s position that Motley looked at the evidence piecemeal, as opposed to as a whole, in deciding that its probative value did not outweigh the prejudice.
Anderson said Motley did look at the evidence in its totality and correctly determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that a drug addict committed the crime – there could be other explanations for the orange juice, for instance – so telling the jury that Morton was an addict would only add a “highly inflammatory” element to the trial.
Steadman pressed Anderson to explain why the drug use evidence should be kept out when there was a chance the jury would reach that conclusion on their own. “You’re asking the jury to decide something where there’s a relevant fact that’s being kept from them,” he said.
Anderson said that the drug use evidence didn’t contribute enough to the overall case to be worth the prejudice against his client. The evidence that the crime was committed by a drug addict was weak, Anderson said, so telling the jury that Morton was an addict would only go to his “propensity” to commit crime.
“It adds the prejudicial impact that this court has repeatedly recognized,” he said.