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

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Shut The Door: Court Of Criminal Appeals Of Alabama Finds Door Not Opened For Impeachment Via Misdemeanor Conviction

Alabama Rule of Evidence 609(a) provides that

For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness,

(1)(A) evidence that a witness other than an accused has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted, subject to Rule 403, if the crime was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year under the law under which the witness was convicted, and

(1)(B) evidence that an accused has been convicted of such a crime shall be admitted if the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect to the accused; and

(2) evidence that any witness has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted if it involved dishonesty or false statement, regardless of the punishment.

Under this Rule, then, it is clear that a party cannot impeach a witness through evidence that the witness has a prior misdemeanor conviction for a crime not involving dishonesty or false statement. But does a witness open the door for such impeachment by testifying that he only completed the Eleventh grade if the reason that he did not complete his high school education was the conviction? According to the recent opinion of the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama in Beemon v. State, 2010 WL 4380238 (Ala.Crim.App. 2010), the answer is "no."

In Beemon, the facts were as stated above, with the witness being Terrence Beemon, the defendant, who was charged with first degree robbery. During direct examination of Beemon, defense counsel asked him how far he went in school, and he replied, "eleventh grade." According to the prosecution, this opened the door for it to impeach him through his misdemeanor conviction for third-degree assault, which was the reason why Beemon did not finish high school (It was clear that the conviction was otherwise inadmissible under Alabama Rule of Evidence 609(a)). The trial court agreed, and, after Beemon was convicted, he appealed.

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama agreed with Beemon that he had not opened the door to such impeachment, finding that

The questions that allegedly opened the door for the State were nothing more than introductory questions about the witness. Counsel asked Beemon how far he went in school to which he replied, "eleventh grade." This was the extent to which direct examination covered Beemon and school. It would be unreasonable to conclude this one question and answer opened the door and allowed the State to probe into why Beemon stopped attending school after the 11th grade. Furthermore, although Beemon testified on cross-examination that he did not finish school because of work and because he was missing too much school, the issue was blatantly interjected into the trial by the prosecution. The State cannot open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence based upon its own line of examination....Because Beemon did not "open the door" to testimony regarding his third-degree-assault conviction, the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the State to introduce evidence of that conviction.

Nonetheless, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama found that this error was harmless and thus affirmed Beemon's conviction.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/11/al-609-beemon-v-state-so3d-2010-wl-4380238alacrimapp2010.html

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