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Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Mississippi Masala, Take 2: Judge To Consider Character Evidence Exception In Murder By Oil Case

Under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2) and most state counterparts, criminal defendants seeking to prove a claim of self-defense can introduce evidence indicating that the alleged victim was a violent person.  However, under Federal Rule of Evidence 405(a), they are generally limited to introducing opinion and/or reputation evidence (A witness could testify that that in his opinion, the alleged victim was violent or that he was the alleged victim's neighbor/co-worker/etc. and that the alleged victim had a reputation for being violent).  Conversely, most criminal defendants would not be able to introduce evidence of specific acts of violence by the alleged victim (A witness couldn't testify that he saw the alleged victim attack another dad at a youth baseball game).  As I have written before, however, Mississippi has a unique interpretation of its version of Federal Rule of Evidence 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 alleged 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 violence by the alleged victim to prove that he was a violent person.

Previously, I wrote about how a Mississippi court applied this rule in a Thanksgiving dinner stabbing case.  Now, another Mississippi court might apply it in what has been described as one of the most sensational local murder cases in recent history.  Edna Mae Sanders has been charged with killing her husband, Sherman Sanders, by dousing him with scalding cooking oil while he slept; Sanders died about a week later at a hospital.  Defense attorney Brian Alexander is arguing a case of self-defense for Sanders and filed a court motion last Friday, which indicated that Sherman Sanders had a history of violence and that he "either openly demonstrated" to others or had told other people he had committed violent acts.  According to Alexander, those reports are admissible because they led Edna Mae Sanders to defend herself.  Judge Steve Simpson will hear arguments on the motion today.

Without knowing the full facts of the case, it is difficult to say how the court will rule.  Based upon what I have read, however, it seems unlikely that the judge will grant the motion because, as I noted, past acts of violence by the alleged victim are only admissible under the Mississippi rule when there is evidence of an overt act by the alleged victim against the defendant.  For instance, in the Thanksgiving dinner case, there was evidence that the alleged victim brandished a knife against the defendant before she stabbed him.  Here, however, the evidence seems to indicate that Sherman Sanders was sleeping when he was doused with oil, precluding a finding that he committed an overt act against the defendant.

-CM

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