EvidenceProf Blog

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

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Empty Threats?: Court Of Appeals of Minnesota Finds No Error In Admission Of Threats By Defendant Against Informant

Like its federal counterpart, Minnesota Rule of Evidence 403 provides that

Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

So, if a defendant threatens a prospective witness against him but does not actually attack the witness, are his threats against the prospective witness sufficiently probative to pass this Rule 403 balancing test? According to the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in State v. Anderson, 2010 WL 1850206 (Minn.App. 2010), the answer is "yes" because it is evidence of consciousness of guilt.

In Anderson, Israel Anderson was convicted of two counts of second-degree attempted murder and possession of a firearm by an ineligible person. At trial, a jailhouse informant

testified that, earlier during Anderson's trial, the two encountered each other in a jail hallway and Anderson said to him: “You dead. The police can get touched, you don't think you can get touched?” The informant understood this to mean that if a policeman can get shot, the informant can get shot too. According to the informant Anderson also stated: “Yeah, and I know your baby mama. That b*tch dead too.” Also, two sheriff's deputies testified that they heard Anderson referring to the informant as a "snitch."

After he was convicted, Anderson appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the district court erred in admitting this testimony because it was either irrelevant or failed to pass the Rule 403 balancing test. The Court of Appeals of Minnesota disagreed, finding that

The district court admitted the evidence, ruling that it was relevant to consciousness of guilt and that its probative value was not outweighed by any rule 403 factor. “[E]vidence of threats to witnesses may be relevant in showing consciousness of guilt.” State v. Harris, 521 N.W.2d 348, 353 (Minn.1994). In Harris, the supreme court upheld the admission of the testimony of a witness that on two occasions while in jail the defendant “threatened him with physical harm for testifying in this case.”...As here, the testimony in Harris was corroborated by a sheriff's deputy....Anderson argues that the term “snitch” is so vague as to have little probative value and that the statement “the police can get touched, you don't think you can get touched?” does not reveal consciousness of guilt. But the district court acted within its discretion in admitting the evidence because the informant's testimony can reasonably be understood to go to Anderson's admission and consciousness of guilt as articulated in Harris, and the deputies' references to Anderson calling the informant a “snitch” can reasonably be considered to support the credibility of the informant's testimony .

I agree. While an innocent defendant could threaten a prospective witness, a threat certainly has some probative value on the issue of consciousness of guilt, and the admission of such a threat is certainly neither excessively (unfairly prejudicial or confusing. Moreover, I don't see how a defendant's reference to an informant as a "snitch" is unfairly prejudicial or confusing in a way that is harmful to the defendant's case. If anything, I would think that the use of such a term could be harmful to the prosecution.



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