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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Throwing The Baby Out With The Bath Water?: Connecticut Court Finds No Reversible Violation Of Right To Present A Defense In Assault Case

The recent opinion of the Appellate Court of Connecticut in State v. Thomas, 2008 WL 4426789 (Conn.App. 2008), contains an interesting, and I would argue, correct, application of the "right to present a defense."  In Thomas, Tania Thomas appealed from her convictions of assault in the first degree and assault in the third degree based on an altercation with Jessica Wilson.  At trial, Thomas claimed self-defense and sought to prove this claim at least in part through a somewhat strange line of questioning during cross-examination of Wilson.  Specifically, defense counsel inquired during cross-examination of Wilson whether she had any children.  Wilson responded that she had one child who was six years old

Later in the cross-examination, defense counsel asked her if she had custody of a child named Evelyn. The state objected on the ground that the question was beyond the scope of direct examination, and the court agreed.  Defense counsel then asked Wilson if she had "ever heard of Isabelle Wilson," and Wilson responded that "[t]here is no Isabelle Wilson."  The state again objected, and the court again sustained its objection.  Immediately following the objection and outside of the presence of the jury, defense counsel argued that the line of inquiry was relevant to Wilson's credibility.  He asserted that Wilson had lied under oath about how many children she had and that the defense had information to believe that one of Wilson's children may have been sold for drug money.

The court again sustained the state's objection, and later, during the defense case, defense counsel sought to recall Wilson as a witness.  The state again objected, noting that defense counsel had a full and fair opportunity to interrogate Wilson on cross-examination.  At this point, defense counsel shifted its theory of the evidence regarding Wilson allegedly selling her child for drug money.  Defense counsel now argued that Thomas had evidence of Wilson selling a child for drug money, that she told Wilson she planned to expose her, and that this gave Wilson the motive to attack Thomas.  Once again, the court sustained the state's objection and did not permit this line of questioning.

After Thomas was convicted, she appealed, claiming, inter alia, that these evidentiary rulings violated her right to present a defense.  In addressing this argument, the Appellate Court of Connecticut presented a pretty nice explanation of the Constitutional right to present a defense under the Sixth Amendment's Compulsory Process Clause.  According to the court,

     "[a] defendant's right to present a defense does not include a right to present evidence that properly is excluded under the rules of evidence....The sixth amendment to the United States constitution require[s] that criminal defendants be afforded a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense....The defendant's sixth amendment right, however, does not require the trial court to forgo completely restraints on the admissibility of evidence....Generally, [a defendant] must comply with established rules of procedure and evidence in exercising his right to present a defense....A defendant, therefore, may introduce only relevant evidence, and, if the proffered evidence is not relevant, its exclusion is proper and the defendant's right is not violated....The trial court is given broad latitude in ruling on the admissibility of evidence, and we will not disturb such a ruling unless it is shown that the ruling amounted to an abuse of discretion.... Even when a trial court's evidentiary ruling is deemed to be improper, we must determine whether that ruling was so harmful as to require a new trial....In other words, an evidentiary ruling will result in a new trial only if the ruling was both wrong and harmful." (emphasis added).

The problem for Thomas was that while the Appellate Court found that the trial court's decision to preclude inquiry into whether Wilson sold a child for drug money was wrong, it also found that this error was not (sufficiently) harmful.  The Appellate Court

     "conclude[d] that the [trial] court improperly excluded evidence relevant to Wilson's alleged motive to attack the defendant. Because the defendant raised the defense of self-defense at trial, the determination of whether Wilson or the defendant was the initial aggressor was material....Although the proffered evidence may have strained credulity, it tended to corroborate the defendant's assertion that Wilson initially attacked her because it tended to show that Wilson had a motive to attack the defendant."

Nonetheless, the Appellate Court found that this error could not support a new trial because Thomas was allowed to present significant other evidence that Wilson had a motive to attack her.  According to the court,

     "evidence was adduced that the two women were bitter rivals, that they had fought for the attentions of Moussay Ortiz and that they had been arrested several times for fighting with each other. Wilson acknowledged in her testimony that she previously had fought with the defendant and called her 'a black bitch.' Because the theory in question provided at most merely one more motivation to attack, its exclusion did not foreclose an entire defense theory and, therefore, did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation."   

As I noted above, I think that the court applied the correct analysis.  I'm currently researching an article on the right to present a defense, and the Appellate Court of Connecticut's ruling seems to be pretty consistent with precedent across the country finding that there can't be a violation of the right to present a defense sufficient to warrant a new trial when the defendant is precluded from presenting evidence supporting his theory of the case but is permitted to introduce (sufficient) other evidence supporting that theory. See, e.g., United States v. Deering, 179 F.3d 592 (8th Cir. 1999).

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2008/10/right-to-presen.html

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