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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Youthful Indiscretions: Court Of Appeals Of Washington Finds Juvenile Adjudications Inadmissible To Impeach Prosecution Witness

Like its federal counterpart, Washington Rule of Evidence 609 provides that

Evidence of juvenile adjudications is generally not admissible under this rule. The court may, however, in a criminal case allow evidence of a finding of guilt in a juvenile offense proceeding of a witness other than the accused if conviction of the offense would be admissible to attack the credibility of an adult and the court is satisfied that admission in evidence is necessary for a fair determination of the issue of guilt or innocence.

I thought that the Court of Appeals of Washington, Division One, addressed a case in which a juvenile adjudication should have been deemed admissible in its recent opinion in State v. Jones, 2010 WL 3490255 (Wash.App. Div. 1 2010). The court disagreed.

In Jones, Leroy Jones was convicted of first degree assault with a deadly weapon. The evidence at trial established that

Leroy Jones was involved in a fight with Taurian Alford near a bus stop in downtown Seattle. Within minutes, three of Alford's friends, including T'Shaun Bennett and Devin Wilturner, ran up and joined the fight. When the police arrived, they saw that Jones had a knife in his hand and was being restrained by the others. He continued struggling and did not drop the knife until a police officer tasered him.

Jones was charged with second degree assault with a deadly weapon. At trial, the State argued that Jones attacked Alford with the knife, and that Alford's friends intervened to save him. The defense theory was that Jones pulled out his knife in self-defense only after Alford's friends attacked him.

The State produced a number of eyewitnesses. Alford's cousin T'Shaun Bennett testified he saw Alford and Jones arguing on the street and then heard Alford shout that Jones had a knife. Bennett saw the knife in Jones' hand as Jones chased Alford down the street. Bennett ran up and saw Jones on top of Alford, trying to stab him. Bennett and Wilturner struggled with Jones until the police arrived.

The State next presented eyewitness testimony of coworkers Endre Veka, Erik Fierce, Peter Schwab, and Gus Iverson. They testified they were returning to their office on the way back from a coffee break when Alford came running up to them and said “someone was chasing him,” or “he's trying to stab me.” At first they were skeptical of Alford's motives, but within seconds they saw Jones run up and attack Alford. They saw two more young men join the fight, apparently trying to subdue Jones. The four coworkers gave slightly varying descriptions of the events, including the point at which they noticed the knife, but all agreed that Alford appeared primarily to be defending himself.

The State sought a material witness warrant for Alford but was unable to secure his presence for trial. Meanwhile,

the sole defense witness was Mark Forbes, a transportation supervisor who was working nearby when the fight occurred. Forbes testified he saw two men walking together. They started arguing and then fighting. He saw three other men join the fight, and heard someone say he “had a knife.” He then noticed a knife cupped in the hand of one of the men. Forbes thought the man with the knife seemed to be protecting himself from the others.

At trial, Jones sought to impeach Bennett through his prior juvenile convictions for third degree possession of stolen property, third degree malicious mischief, and three convictions for second degree taking a motor vehicle under Rule 609(d). The trial court, however, precluded this impeachment, and, after Bennett was convicted, Jones appealed, claiming, inter alia, that "the juvenile convictions were necessary evidence because without them Bennett, Alford, and the others were unfairly sanitized, leading the jury to discredit Jones' self-defense claim. The Court of Appeals of Washington, Division One, rejected this argument, concluding that 

Jones present[ed] no persuasive reason why Bennett's prior juvenile adjudications would be necessary for a fair determination of Jones' guilt, apart from a general attack on credibility. Refusing to admit the evidence was not an abuse of discretion, and in any event, there is no reasonable probability the omission of this evidence materially affected the outcome, especially given the adverse testimony of the witnesses who had no criminal history.

I disagree. It seems to me that the key question at Jones' trial was when he pulled the knife. If he pulled it before he was attacked by Alford's friends, he could be found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. If he pulled the knife after being attacked by Alford's friends, I think that at the least he would have a viable defense of imperfect self-defense.

The unbiased eyewitnesses who saw the fight differed with regard to when they noticed the knife. The victim, Alford, did not testify at trial. Apparently, neither of his friends besides Bennett testified at trial. Therefore, Bennett's testimony that Jones had the knife out before Bennett and his friends attacked him seems to me to be the key testimony in his case. Thus, it seems to me that evidence of Bennett's prior convictions, which had some decent bearing on his credibility, were necessary for a fair determination of Jones' guilt or innocence.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/09/609d-state-v-jonesnot-reported-in-p3d-2010-wl-3490255washapp-div-12010.html

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