Saturday, February 18, 2012
Violent Reaction: Supreme Court Of Arkansas Finds No Problem With Impeachment Of Defendant Charged With Murder
For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness, evidence that he has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted but only if the crime (1) was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one  year under the law under which he was convicted, and the court determines that the probative value of admitting this evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect to a party or a witness, or (2) involved dishonesty or false statement, regardless of the punishment.
So, let's say that a defendant is charged with murdering his stepfather. If he is willing to stipulate that he is a prior felon, should the court allow the prosecutor to delve into the details of those prior convictions if they involved crimes of violence against other family members? According to the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Arkansas in Ellis v. State, 2012 WL 503880 (Ark. 2012), the answer is yes.
In Ellis, Tyrone Ellis was convicted of first-degree murder after finding that Ellis shots and killed his stepfather. After he was convicted, Ellis appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the circuit court erred in permitting the prosecutor to inquire into the nature of his prior felony convictions. Those convictions were for aggravated assault and second-degree battery based upon acts that Ellis committed against other family members. Ellis stipulated to the fact the he was a prior felon and claimed that the prosecutor shouldn't have been allowed to delve into the details of those prior convictions.
The Supreme Court of Arkansas disagreed, concluding that
Ellis's prior convictions were for violent crimes and involved family members as the targets of his violence. The evidence in this case consisted primarily of the testimony of eyewitnesses and Ellis himself. In prior cases where the evidence consists of witness or victim testimony and the testimony of the accused, this court has steadfastly held that the accused's credibility is critical and, therefore, prior convictions are highly probative.
Moreover, the court found that
the prosecutor's cross-examination on the prior felonies was limited to determining the type of crime, whether a weapon was used, and Ellis's relationship to the victim. Because the inquiry was limited, the evidence in this case clearly fell within the parameters of Rule 609.