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Friday, November 2, 2007

Complete Nonsense: Third Circuit Makes Erroneous Rule of Completeness and Brady Rulings in Joseph Noble Appeal

Yesterday, I wrote about how a North Dakota judge incorrectly applied the rule of completeness by allowing the prosecution to introduce the entirety of Moe Gibbs' taped statement to police into evidence after Gibbs only wanted the portions of the tape where he denied the murder of Mindy Morgenstern introduced.  Well, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently made the opposite mistake in United States v. Noble, 2007 WL 3133065 (3rd Cir. 2007) in addition to making a possibly erroneous Brady ruling.

After a jury trial in federal district court, Joseph Noble was convicted of kidnapping, in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 1201(a).  In November, 2004, Noble had an argument with his wife, Joanne.  She then left to go to her stepsister Krislyn's house in South Philadelphia.  A few days later, Noble called Joanne and told her that their children were sick and that he wanted to see her.  Joanne agreed to meet him outside Krislyn's house. 

According to Joanne, when Noble arrived, he invited her to lunch, but she declined.  When Joanne declined, Noble picked her up despite her kicking and screaming, and put her in his car.  At this point, Krislyn called the police.  Joanne claimed that Noble then drove like a maniac, eventually arriving at a hotel in Kingston, New York, where he twice forced her to have intercourse.  She also claimed that while Noble was driving, she heard police sirens and believed that police cars were following them.

The next day, Noble drove back to Philadelphia and upon learning that the cops were looking for him (apparently in response to Krislyn's call), he dropped his family off at his lawyer's office.  While there, Joanne called a detective, who later took her to the hospital, where pictures were taken of a bump on her head and bruising on her arm, which she claimed were the result of Noble forcing her into the car.

At trial, it seems as if Noble's major defenses were (1) that Joanne eventually consented to the trip and that the prosecution failed to prove that he took Joanne acrss state lines without her consent, a required element under 18 U.S.C. Section 1201(a), and (2) that he wasn't acting in his right mind at the time of his alleged incident because Joanne was drugging him because she was having an affair.  In addition to claiming that the evidence at trial was insufficient to support his conviction, Noble raised two evidentiary challenges on appeal.

First, he claimed that the judge erred in allowing the prosecution to introduce excerpts of letters he wrote to his wife and children while preventing him from introducing the entirety of those letters.  Federal Rule of Evidence 106 states that "[w]hen a writing or recorded statement or part thereof is introduced, an adverse party may require the introduction at that time of any other part or any other writing or recorded statement which ought in fairness to be considered contemporaneously with it."  Like most courts, the Third Circuit has found that this Rule means that an entire statement can be introduced when portions of it are introduced into evidence and the entire statement is needed to explain the admitted portion or place the admitted portion in context.

One of the excerpts from Noble's letter to Joanne read, "Jo, I didn't go see you for sex.  I wanted the kids to have their mommy back....I'll never sin against you again.  I was wrong."  On appeal, the Third Circuit found that the judge did not err in refusing to allow the entirety of the letters into evidence because they did not explain the admitted portions or place them in context; instead, they were rambling, stream of consciousness descriptions of Noble's thoughts while he was in prison, including his new found commitment to religion.

I disagree with this conclusion.  First, if I were a juror hearing the excerpt listed above without reading the entirety of the letters, I would conclude that Noble was admitting that he was legally guilty of some crime.  If, however, I were able to see that the excerpt was part of a letter where Noble was stating his new found commitment to religion, I might have concluded that his statements were religious confessions, not necessarily confessions connected to a legal crime. 

Furthermore, just hearing the excerpt listed above, I might have concluded that Noble's letters were clear and concise admissions of his guilt.  If, however, I were able to see that the excerpts instead were mixed in with other stream of consciousness ramblings, I might have given them less weight.  In other words, the entire letters both explained and put into context the admitted portions of the letters.

Second, Noble claimed that a new trial was required because the prosecution failed to disclose to him that Joanne had been arrested and charged with 5 misdemeanors in connection with her attempt to purchase marijuana in November, 2005.  Under the Brady doctrine, a new trial is warranted when the prosecution fails to timely disclose to the defendant material exculpatory evidence, including impeachment evidence.  On appeal, the prosecution acknowledged that it failed to timely disclose this evidence, and the only question was whether the evidence was material in that there was a reasonable probability that the evidence would have affected the outcome at trial.

Noble claimed, inter alia, that this evidence helped prove his claim that he wasn't acting in his right mind because Joanne was drugging him.  The Third Circuit rejected his claim.  They did so, however, not because his claim was ludicrous, but instead because Joanne had already called into question her own credibility.

The Third Circuit noted that Joanne admitted to using Percocet with Noble around the time of the incident.  She also admitted to having an affair, although she claimed that the affair started after the alleged kidnapping.  Most importantly, she admitted that (apparently before the alleged kidnapping) she twice secretly put pills into Noble's tea and then snuck out of their house after he fell asleep.  The Third Circuit then concluded that in light of this other evidence, the evidence that Joanne was arrested for trying to purchase marijuana was not likely to have affected her credibility in any significant degree.

To me, this conclusion makes no sense.  I could understand if the Third Circuit concluded that Noble's allegations were preposterous and that any damage the undisclosed evidence could have done to Joanne's credibility would not have been enough to change the jury's verdict.  But what the Third Circuit seemed to say instead was that Joanne had already done maximum damage to her credibility so that this additional evidence couldn't have damaged her credibility any more.  I have great trouble accepting this conclusion when Joanne was the key prosecution witness whose testimony essentially had to be accepted for Noble to be convicted.

-CM

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