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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Mississippi Masala: Thanksgiving Self-Defense Case Reveals That Mississippi Has a Unique Interpretation of Rule 405(b)

In 2005, a jury in Mississippi found Tabitha Yolanda Miller guilty of manslaughter.  At trial, it was adduced that Miller and Calvin James, the victim, had a brief, but tumultuous, romantic relationship.  In November, 2000, Miller broke up with James, and her children and she were thereafter invited to a Thanksgiving dinner.  James appeared at the Thanksgiving dinner intoxicated and caused a disturbance.

After dinner, Miller drove to the house of her ex-sister-in law, and, upon arrival, she saw that James was following her; he followed her into the house and cursed at her.  Later, Miller had in her hand a knife which she was going to use to cut a cake, but James began pushing and shoving her.  Miller thereafter called 911, but James continued to curse her.

James then allegedly punched Miller in the face, Miller warned him to get back, and James grabbed a butcher's knife and drew it back.  Allegedly fearful that James was going to stab her, Miller stabbed James in the chest.  James was later pronounced dead at a local hospital, and Miller first claimed that he fell on the knife before changing her story.

After being convicted of manslaughter, Miller claimed that the trial court erred by refusing, pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2), to allow her to present evidence of a continuing course of violence that James inflicted on her to establish the reasonableness of the fear that James was going to stab her and thus that her actions were in self-defense.  The Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed Miller's conviction and found that her argument was correct in that pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2) a criminal defendant can present evidence that the victim had a pertinent character trait, such as a character for being violent.

If the case were being heard in federal court or most state courts, this decision would have been incorrect.  While pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2), a criminal defendant is able to present evidence that the victim had a pertinent character trait, Federal Rule of Evidence 405(a) limits the methods of proof to opinion and reputation testimony.  Therefore, Miller would have been entitled to present a witness who would have testified that in his opinion James was violent and that James had a reputation in the community for being violent, that witness could not have testified to specific acts of violence by James. 

Federal Rule of Evidence 405(b) does allow for the introduction of specific acts of an individual to prove his character, but this Rule only applies when character is an essential element of a claim or defense (such as in a libel case) and does not apply in self-defense case. See, e.g., United States v. Gregg, 451 F.3d 930, 933 (8th Cir. 2006). Mississippi, however, has a unique interpretation of its version of Rule 405(b), under which the character of the victim becomes an "essential" element of the defense of self-defense when there is evidence of an overt act by the victim against the defendant. See, e.g., Hester v. State, 841 So.2d 158, 163 (Miss.App. 2002).  In such cases, the defendant can therefore introduce into evidence specific acts of, for instance, violence by the victim to prove that he was a violent person.  Thus, because there was evidence that James punched and brandished a knife against Miller, she was entitled to present evidence of past acts of violence by James.

-CM 

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