Saturday, March 3, 2012
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, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.
As the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Texas, Corpus Christi–Edinburg, in Cantu v. State, 2012 WL 664939 (Tex.App.-Corpus Christi 2012), makes clear, however, (1) the rules of evidence don't apply strictly at sentencing; and (2) autopsy photos are generally deemed admissible under Rule 403.
In Cantu, Jose Cantu pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced by a jury to fifty-five years' incarceration. After he was sentenced, Cantu appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court erred in admitting seven photographs from the deceased's autopsy. The Court of Appeals of Texas, Corpus Christi–Edinburg began by noting that the definition of "relevant" under the rules of evidence "is not a perfect fit in the punishment context." The court then noted, however, that "[a]lthough it is not a 'perfect fit' for our analysis, we are nonetheless guided by what the rules ofevidence provide regarding relevance."
The court thereafter detailed the autopsy evidence admitting during the sentencing phase:
Here, the challenged photographs show that the deceased's body was in a state of decomposition. All of the photos show severe discoloration of the skin and bloating. Fulgencio Salinas, M.D., the Hidalgo County forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on the deceased, testified as to each of the seven photographs, describing the deceased's injuries depicted in each photograph. As described by Dr. Salinas, State's exhibit 1 is a close-up of the deceased's neck and shows the groove in her skin made by the cord that strangled her. State's exhibit 2 depicts the autopsy dissection of the deceased's neck, which shows the injuries caused by the strangulation to her esophagus and the blood vessels in her neck. State's exhibits 4 and 5 show the deceased's left and right hands; both hands are in a state of decomposition. State's exhibit 6 is a photograph of the backside of the deceased's body; the backside of her body exhibits white marks where her clothing was, which is a further indication of decomposition. State's exhibit 7 is another picture of the deceased's neck, which also shows the injury to her neck caused by the cord. Finally, State's exhibit 8 is a photograph of the deceased's body as it came to the morgue, fully clothed and in an obvious state of decomposition. As they appear in the record, the photographs are in color and have not been enlarged. Exhibits 6 and 7 show parts of the deceased's naked body; exhibit 6 shows her buttocks, and exhibit 7 shows the top of her breasts. The State admitted a total of ninety-three photographs at trial.
Cantu claimed "that the photographs were not relevant to any disputed issue at trial, as he never contested the cause of death or the type of injuries the deceased suffered, and the photographs were therefore not probative of any issue that was in dispute and were more prejudicial than probative." The court disagreed, concluding that
other factors weighed heavily in favor of the photographs' admission. Primarily, although the photographs were gruesome, as visual depictions of the injuries Dr. Salinas was describing, the photographs were highly relevant. The photographs were useful to the jury in understanding the extent of the deceased's injuries. And the depiction in the photographs of the severely decomposed state of the deceased's corpse was directly relevant to the State's rebuttal of Cantu's sudden passion defense. See id. The fact that Cantu left the deceased's body to decompose in her parents' backyard rebutted his assertions at trial that he cared deeply about the deceased and merely acted out of sudden passion in killing her. In other words, the jury could have decided that Cantu's decision to leave the deceased's body to decompose contradicted his claim that he had strong feelings for the deceased, and the photographs were highly relevant in that regard.