September 9, 2008
Circumventing Congress: How the Federal Courts Opened the Door to Impeaching Criminal Defendants with Prior Convictions
[From Jeffrey Bellin] Senior Appellate Court Attorney for the California Courts of Appeal and former prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C.
This paper does not reflect the views of the California Courts.
This Article spotlights the flawed analytical framework at the heart of the federal courts' approach to one of the most controversial trial practices in American criminal jurisprudence - the admission of prior convictions to impeach the credibility of defendants who testify. As the Article explains, the courts' flawed approach is the byproduct of their misplaced reliance on a five-factor analytical framework to implement the governing legal standard enacted by Congress in Federal Rule of Evidence 609.
Tracing the evolution of the five-factor framework from its roots in pre-Rule 609 case law, the Article demonstrates that the courts' reinterpretation of the framework in recent years has, by judicial fiat, transformed Rule 609 from the obstacle to the admission of prior convictions that Congress intended, into a conduit for their routine admission.
The Article concludes by proposing an alternative analytical framework designed to realign the federal case law on this critical subject with the governing congressional intent. In the absence of such a reform, the federal courts' erroneous analysis will continue to alter the course of countless criminal trials by unnecessarily deterring defendants from testifying, and improperly penalizing those who do take the witness stand. [Mark Godsey]
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