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December 19, 2009
Make Me Whole, Take 3: Minnesota Opinion Involves Yet Another Disastrous Application Of Minnesota's "Whole Person" Rationale
I have done a couple of previous posts (here and here) about Minnesota's wrongheaded "whole person" approach to felony conviction impeachment, and I am going to continue posting about it until Minnesota courts abandon this horribly misguided approach. The latest example of Minnesota's miscarriage of justice is the opinion of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in State v. Atkinson, 2009 WL 4573726 (Minn.App. 2009).
In Atkinson, Kenneth Atkinson, Jr. was convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. At trial, "the prosecutor sought to impeach [Atkinson] with evidence of his two felony convictions, one for a weapons offense and the other for a terroristic-threats offense." The trial court held "that allowing evidence of both convictions would be unfairly prejudicial but allowed the evidence of the terroristic-threats conviction."
After he was convicted, Atkinson appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the court improperly permitted this impeachment. According to the Court of Appeals of Minnesota, the issue was governed by Minnesota Rule of Evidence 609(a), which states that
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, or (2) involved dishonesty or false statement, regardless of the punishment.
(1) the impeachment value of the prior crime, (2) the date of the conviction and the defendant's subsequent history, (3) the similarity of the past crime with the charged crime (the greater the similarity, the greater the reason for not permitting use of the prior crime to impeach), (4) the importance of defendant's testimony, and (5) the centrality of the credibility issue.
argued that this "whole person" rationale has been criticized and that overly permissive use of prior convictions for impeachment may lead to erroneous convictions. But knowledge that a jury may improperly use evidence of a prior conviction does not permit us to disregard supreme court precedent. Under Brouillette, [Atkinson]'s prior conviction is probative of credibility.
December 19, 2009 | Permalink
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I just finished grading the essay questions on my fall Evidence final and had an impeachment with prior conviction question. Despite my repeated emphasis of the point that the "nature of the prior offense" element of the 609(a)(1) balancing test refers to the conviction's probative value for truthfulness, students almost instinctively think that it gives insight into the "whole person" and that because Bubba was convicted before he is the type of person who will commit other crimes, and, therefore, shouldn't be believed when he testifies. Apparently, my students would fit right in on the Minnesota Supreme Court! I stress that 609(a)(1) assumes that all convictions that carry a punishment of death or imprisonment for greater than one year and meet the 609(b) 10 year window have some value in determining character for truthfulness, but the balancing test of 609(a)(1) looks to refine that basic assumption and seeks to determine where on the continuum of probative value for truthfulness this particular conviction falls. I've been telling my students this for over 16 years and they still don't get. Good luck with the court!
Posted by: W.A. Woodruff | Dec 22, 2009 2:43:06 AM