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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Witness For The Prosecition: Montana Supreme Court Finds Trial Court Properly Circumscribed Cross-Examination Of State's Witness

In State v. Wilson, 2007 WL 4305475 (Mont. 2007), the Supreme Court of Montana affirmed Bianca Wilson's felony conviction for tampering with evidence.  Here are the (very) abbreviated facts of the case.  In September 2004, Wilson and Jesus Villareal allegedly drove to Lovell, Wyoming in a blue Ford Taurus to meet with Justin Marchant, who turned out to be a confidential informant.  Allegedly, Marchant later entered the Taurus, and Wilson shot her with a gun, leading to Marchant either jumping out of or being ejected from the Taurus.  Authorities later discovered Marchant's dead body on a gravel road.  Subsequently, investigators caught up with Villareal and others (but not Wilson), and Villareal called Wilson to tell her to meet him, leading to her arrest.  When the investigators searched the Taurus, however, they found no murder weapon but did find evidence that blood had been cleaned from the car.

Wilson was subsequently charged with aggravated kidnapping and deliberate homicide, and Villareal was charged with aggravated kidnapping, but those charges were later dropped.  Wilson and Villareal were then charged with tampering with evidence of the homicide of Marchant, and Villareal accepted a  plea deal with the State and was granted immunity in exchange for pleading nolo contendere and testifying against Wilson at trial.

During his opening statement, defense counsel wanted to make statements about Villareal's motives to kill Marchant, which included the fact that Villareal allegedly knew that Marchant was a confidential informant, that Marchant owed Villareal money for drugs, and that Villareal had threatened to kill Marchant on a previous occasion.  Defense counsel claimed that these motives were relevant because they explained why Villareal would want to shift blame for Marchant's murder to someone else and because they explained why it might have been Villareal, and not Wilson, who covered up the crime by tampering with the evidence.  The district court judge denied defense counsel's motion, finding that this motive evidence was not "relevant to the strict issue of whether or not Ms. Wilson tampered with evidence as these elements are defined in the criminal code.  So we're not going to try the homicide here or anybody else's motives for homicide, that's a different case...."

Villareal thereafter was the only witness who testified that Wilson tampered with the murder weapon.  During cross-examination, defense counsel did not ask Villareal about his motives to kill Marchant pursuant to the court's ruling, but did ask him about his nolo contendere plea, the grant of immunity, his prior drug use and distribution, and inconsistencies in his testimony.  After Wilson was convicted, she appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the district court violated her rights under the Confrontation Clause by precluding her from questioning Villareal about his motives for killing Marchant.

Pursuant to the Supreme Court's opinion in Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 678-79 (1986), the main and essential purpose of the right to confrontation is to secure for the opponent the opportunity of cross-examination, which includes an opportunity to expose the witness' motivation in testifying.  At the same time, the right to cross-examination is not absolute and does not allow for cross-examination which would confuse the issues or be of only marginal relevance. See id. at 679.  Pursuant to Van Arsdall, the Supreme Court of Montana found that cross-examination of Villareal on his motives to kill Marchant would have confused the issue from whether Wilson was guilty of tampering with evidence to the issue of whether Villareal killed Marchant and that such cross-examination would have been of only marginal relevance given the cross-examination of Villareal on other issues that was allowed.

I disagree with the court's ruling and find it egregious that the court failed to mention a key concern in any Confrontation Clause analysis.  Courts consistently hold that the right to confrontation is particularly important and must be liberally construed when the witness to be confronted is critical to the prosecution's case and when the witness may have a substantial reason to cooperate with the government. See, e.g., United States v. Jimenez, 464 F.3d 555, 559 (5th Cir. 2006).  Here, because Villareal was the only witness who testified that Wilson tampered with the murder weapon, he was undoubtedly crticial to the prosecution's case.  Furthermore, evidence that he had several motives to kill Marchant undoubtedly gave him a substantial reason to cooperate with the government and perhaps fabricate his tampering allegations against Wilson in exchange for his plea bargain. 

-CM      

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2007/12/in-state-v-wils.html

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