The District of Columbia Court of Appeals declined to take a side on admitting evidence of past drug use by a man charged in the 1997 strangling of Washington resident Sharon Moskowitz, instead asking the trial judge to take another look at the issue.
The defendant, Frederick Morton, argued successfully before Superior Court Judge Thomas Motley that evidence of his past drug use, as well as evidence of past burglaries he committed to support that habit, were too prejudicial and outweighed any probative value.
In yesterday's opinion (PDF), the three-judge appeals panel found that while Motley was right to keep out the burglary evidence, he may not have properly considered the issue of past drug use. When other evidence is taken into consideration, the court found, it's possible that the history of drug use could be probative enough to outweigh any prejudice.
Moskowitz was found strangled to death in her Northwest Washington home on January 21, 1997. After a lengthy investigation that stalled for more than 10 years, police arrested Morton in 2009 and charged him with felony murder, burglary, kidnapping and robbery. The government's theory, according to filings, is that Morton killed Moskowitz after she interrupted him during a daytime burglary. Prosecutors planned to argue at trial that Morton broke in to Moskowitz's house to get money to support his heroin addiction at the time.
During oral arguments on February 29, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Danello argued that the crime only made sense in the context of Morton's drug addiction. The government argued that Motley considered the drug addiction evidence in isolation, instead of as part of the larger body of evidence. Part of the government's case centers on an open container of orange juice found on the scene, with the theory that Morton drank it because heroin addicts can crave sugary substances.
Jonathan Anderson of the D.C. Public Defender Service argued that Motley did consider the evidence as a whole and properly reached the conclusion that it wasn't probative enough to outweigh prejudice. Anderson said that the evidence that a drug addict, as opposed to a non-drug addict, committed the crime was weak, so admitting evidence of his client's drug use would only introduce a "highly inflammatory" element to the jury.
Judge Phyllis Thompson, writing for the court, said in yesterday's opinion that the drug addiction evidence could be relevant to support the government's theory that a "desperate person" committed the crime. Given other evidence prosecutors purportedly had against Morton, such as witnesses who identified him in a surveillance video as using a credit card stolen from Moskowitz's home, Thompson wrote that evidence of a heroin addiction could corroborate other inferences that Morton was part of a "narrowed pool of potential perpetrators."
Thompson wrote that given Motley's opinion that using the drug addiction evidence as corroboration was a "problem," it's possible that he failed to properly weigh its probative value. The court remanded the case, asking for a new evaluation. Associate Judge Stephen Glickman and Senior Judge John Steadman also heard the case.
The U.S. attorney's office, through spokesman William Miller, declined to comment. A representative of the Public Defender Service was not immediately available today.