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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Last Dance With Mary Jane: Will Evidence of THC In Trayvon Martin's Blood Be Admissible In George Zimmerman Trial?

According to several sources,

The medical examiner's report showed traces of THC - the active ingredient in marijuana - in [Trayvon] Martin's blood and a positive test for cannabinoids in his urine.

Of course, this begs the question of whether George Zimmerman will be able to present this drug evidence in support of his claim of self-defense in his impending second-degree murder trial. The admissibility of this drug evidence will depend on a variety of factors, but the opinion of the Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 3, California, in People v. Sanchez, 2010 WL 2842158 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2010), supports the proposition that the judge could exclude it.

In Sanchez, Joe Anthony Sanchez was convicted by a jury of manslaughter. After he was convicted, Sanchez appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court violated his right to present a defense by precluding him from presenting evidence in support of his claim of self-defense that the victim, Jose Madrigal "had cocaine and marijuana in his system at the time he was killed." According to Sanchez, this evidence supported his theory of the case, which is that Madrigal, who was sleeping with Sanchez's wife (from whom Sanchez was separated), attacked him with a knife rather than vice versa as the prosecution claimed.

 The Court of Appeal disagreed, concluding that

The evidence that Madrigal had drugs in his system at the time of his death was...properly excluded. Appellant contends the evidence was relevant to his claim of self-defense, in that it showed Madrigal acted violently and irrationally in attacking him with the knife. But appellant's self-defense claim was grounded in the notion that Madrigal and Charity conspired to kill him, not that Madrigal attacked him in a drug-induced rage. Therefore, the evidence of Madrigal's drug use was of dubious relevance from a tactical standpoint.

In addition, while there was evidence Madrigal had trace amounts of cocaine and marijuana in his system, and those drugs could have had a "physiological effect" on him, there was no evidence they were actually inclined to make him act aggressively or violently during his fatal encounter with appellant. Therefore, even if the evidence of Madrigal's drug use had some bearing on the case, its exclusion would not be cause for reversal.

As you can see from this block quote, the court's opinion was partially informed by Sanchez's theory of the case, which reduced the probative value of the drug evidence. That said, the second paragraph in the block quote seems to make clear that it would be difficult for a defendant to be able to admit evidence of marijuana in a victim's system to prove that the victim was the aggressor. Indeed, it is pretty well established that "[m]arijuana does not make the user more violent or aggressive. To the contrary, the effect of marijuana intoxication is to relax and make one less aggressive." State v. Smith, 610 P.2d 869, 887 (Dollive, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

Therefore, there seems to be a pretty clear basis for the trial judge to exclude the evidence of THC found in Martin's blood. Ultimately, the issue will be governed by three rules/rights. The first question is whether the evidence is relevant under Section 90.401 of the Florida Statutes, which defines relevant evidence as "evidence tending to prove or disprove a material fact." Assuming that the evidence is deemed relevant, the second question is whether it is inadmissible under section 90.403 of the Florida Statutes Relevant because "its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of issues, misleading the jury, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence." Third, assuming that the court deems the evidence inadmissible under one or both of these rules, the question becomes whether exclusion of the evidence would violate one of Zimmerman's Constitutional rights, such as the right to present a defense, which I discussed earlier today.

Based upon the above language from Sanchez, I would expect the judge to exclude the drug evidence, but (1) I would like to see if I can find Florida precedent on the issue; and (2) a lot could depend on Zimmerman's exact theory of the case.

-CM

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Comments

What about the prosecution offering the THC evidence (along with expert testimony) to support their theory that Martin was a peaceful kid with the munchies?

Posted by: Deryl Dantzler | May 19, 2012 12:26:15 AM

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