EvidenceProf Blog

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

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A History Of Violence: Court Of Appeals Of Tennessee Makes Odd Comment About Violent Felonies In Rule 609 Ruling

Like its federal counterpart, Tennessee Rule of Evidence 609 permits a prosecutor to impeach a defendant through evidence of the defendant's prior conviction if the prosecutor can prove that the probative value of the conviction outweighs its prejudicial effect. What the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee seems to have missed in its recent opinion in State v. Parham, 2010 WL 2898785 (Tenn.Crim.App. 2010), is the relevant question is how probative the prior conviction is on the issue of the defendant's credibility as a witness.

In Parham, Tarrence Parham, was convicted of attempted second degree murder and reckless aggravated assault. After he was convicted, Parham appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court erred by allowing the prosecution to admit his prior reckless homicide conviction for impeachment purposes and that the error was prejudicial.

After finding that the issue was governed by Tennessee Rule of Evidence 609, the court held that,

In this case, the defendant's credibility was at issue because he testified in his own defense; therefore, any evidence regarding his credibility was probative. However, the defendant's credibility was not crucial to the state's case because of the nature of the evidence against him. The state argues that reckless homicide is a crime of violence and, as a violent felony, was probative of the defendant's credibility. We decline, however, to characterize reckless homicide as a crime of violence because it requires reckless conduct rather than intentional or knowing conduct....Because the defendant's reckless homicide conviction was not a violent felony, we decline to weigh it more heavily against his credibility than other non-violent felonies.

Huh? Why would a violent felony weigh more heavily against a defendant's credibility than a non-violent felony? The fact that a defendant committed a crime of violence says little about whether he is likely to lie on the witness stand. Conversely, if a defendant committed a non-violent felony like grand larceny, it would say a good deal more about his credibility. I'm not sure what the prosecution or the court was getting at in the above block quote, but the court found that the defendant's prior crime was not a crime of violence, so this ended up not being an issue.

The court then concluded that,

In this matter, the charged offenses of criminal attempt to commit first degree murder and aggravated assault were similar to the defendant's prior conviction. Reckless homicide is the "reckless killing of another" while first degree murder is the "premeditated and intentional killing of another."...Criminal attempt requires the defendant to act with the same culpability as the specific offense....The impeaching conviction and the charged offense of attempted first degree murder are similar in that they are both offenses against the person involving the "killing of another."...Aggravated assault is the intentional, knowing, or reckless commission of an assault that causes serious bodily injury or is accomplished through the use or display of a deadly weapon....Assault, as relative to this case, is intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing bodily injury to another....Aggravated assault and reckless homicide are similar because they may involve the same mental state and are offenses against the person. Because of the similarity between the charged offenses and the defendant's prior conviction, we conclude that “there [was] a danger that jurors [would] erroneously utilize the impeaching conviction as propensity evidence of guilt and conclude that since the defendant committed a similar offense, he...is probably guilty of the offense charged."...Therefore, the trial court committed error by admitting the prior conviction for impeachment purposes.

Nonetheless, the court found that this was harmless error based upon the overwhelming evidence of Parham's guilt and because "the trial court admonished the jury that the defendant's prior convictions were not evidence that he committed the charged offenses, and 'the trial court's limiting instruction ‘provided an adequate safeguard against any potential prejudice possibly engendered by the admission of the prior conviction.''" If the court really found that the evidence of Parham's guilt was overwhelming, I have no problem with the court's ruling. But if the appellate court based its conclusion on the belief that the instruction to jurors really removed the prejudice resulting from jurors hearing about the defendant's prior reckless homicide conviction, I think that its holding was issued on pretty shaky grounds.



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