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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Make Me Whole: Supreme Court Of Minnesota Opinion Reveals Odd "Whole Person" Analysis Under Felony Impeachment Rule

Minnesota Rule of Evidence 609(1) states,

For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness, evidence that the witness has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted only if the crime (1) was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year under the law under which the witness was convicted, and the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect.  

Like most other courts, Minnesota courts balance probative value and prejudicial effect by considering five factors, with the first of those factors being the impeachment value of the prior conviction. Under this factors, courts look at how much bearing the prior crime(s) leading to the witness' prior conviction(s) has on his (dis)honesty as a witness, with certain crimes, such as crimes as violence, having low impeachment value, and other crimes, such as larceny, having high impeachment value. In other words, in a given case, based upon the nature of a witness' prior crimes/convictions, factor one could weigh in favor of admission or against it. Then, there is Minnesota's "whole person" approach.

In State v. Williams, 2009 WL 2778203 (Minn. 2009), Antoine Delany Williams was convicted of first-degree assault, second-degree assault, and possession of a firearm by a felon. The district judge had ruled that if Williams testified, the prosecution could have impeached him through evidence of his two prior drug-related felony convictions, and WIlliams chose not to testify at his trial. But he did later appeal, claiming, inter alia, that this ruling was erroneous.

The Supreme Court of Minnesota disagreed, and in turn, I disagree with the court's analysis under the first factor. According to the court,

Appellant argues that the first factor, which considers the impeachment value of the prior crime, favors the exclusion of the evidence. In State v. Brouillette, 286 N.W.2d 702, 707 (Minn. 1979), we observed that impeachment by prior crime aids the jury by permitting it to see the "whole person" of the testifying witness and therefore to better judge the truth of his testimony....Here, the district court applied the “whole person” test and determined that the first Jones factor “slightly favored” admissibility of the prior convictions because the prior convictions would help the jury see appellant's “whole person.” We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it made this determination.

The court also noted that Williams claimed that the "whole person" test should be reconsidered because district courts will admit prior conviction evidence merely because it may enlighten the jury about the defendant's past, without regard for any prejudice the evidence might create for the defendant." In other words, Williams asked the court "to abrogate the 'whole person' test and convert the first...factor into a balancing test between prejudicial impact and probative value."  The court, however, 

decline[d] the invitation for two reasons. First, appellant provide[d] no persuasive reason to abrogate the 'whole person' test. The underlying rationale of the 'whole person' test is that it allows the jury to see the “whole person” of the testifying witness to better evaluate the truth or falsity of the testimony. We believe that the rationale for the test expressed in Brouillette is sound and see no reason to change the test. Second, Rule 609 requires that the court determine that 'the probative value of [impeachment] evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect' before admitting such evidence. Thus, the rule already provides the necessary safeguards requested by appellant.

But does it? Frankly, I'm a bit baffled by the "test" that Minnesota courts apply. Doesn't any conviction help the jury to get a better sense of the "whole person" of a witness? It seems to me that the point that Williams was making was that Minnesota courts should closely consider how much bearing a prior crime/conviction has on a witness' (dis)honesty rather than reaching the general conclusion that the first factor favors admission because a prior crime/conviction helps the jury see the "whole person." I simply don't see any teeth in Minnesota's test and how it could ever work against admission.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2009/09/mn-609a1state-v-williams----nw2d------2009-wl-2778203minn2009.html

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