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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Unimpeachable: Supreme Court Of South Carolina Finds Trial Court Conducted Incorrect Felony Impeachment Analysis

Similar to its federal counterpartSouth Carolina Rule of Evidence 609(a)(1) provides that

For the purpose of attacking the credibility of a witness,

(1) 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 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, like most federal courts, South Carolina courts apply a five factor test for determining whether evidence of prior convcitions is admissible under Rule 609(a)(1):

(1) the impeachment value of the prior crime; (2) the point in time of the conviction and the witness's subsequent history; (3) the similarity between the past crime and the charged crime; (4) the importance of the defendant's testimony; and (5) the centrality of the credibility issue.

In State v. Howard, 720 S.E.2d 511 (S.C. 2011), the Supreme Couth of South Carolina find that the trial court badly botched its analysis of the first factor, requiring a new trial. So, what happened?

In Howard, Stacy Howard was convicted of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature (ABHAN) after a trial in February 2007. Howard unquestionably struck his girlfriend after an argument in his truck, breaking her nose in 3 places. But, according to Howard, his girlfriend was out of control and he unintentionally hit her while attempting to get a clear view of the road. At trial, the prosecution impeached Howard with evidence of his three prior felony ABHAN convictions from December 2004, April 2004, and November 1995. Howard was released from incarceration for this earliest conviction after February 1997.

After he was convicted, Howard appealed, claiming that this impeachment was improper. In response, the Supreme Court of South Carolina remanded so that the trial court could conduct an on-the-record balancing of the aforementioned five factors. Under the first factor, 

the trial court found the impeachment value of Howard's prior convictions was "rather substantial" because Howard and the victim were the only witnesses to the assault. The trial court further found the impeachment value was heightened by Howard's repeated attacks on the victim's character over objections from the State and admonition from the court.

After balancing the first factor and the other factors, the trial court again found the prior convictions admissible to impeach Howard. Howard again appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court's analysis of the first factor was misguided. The Supreme Court of South Carolina agreed and thus reversed because

the court failed to state how Howard's prior ABHANs were probative of his credibility. The trial court instead focused on Howard's character, which does not affect the impeachment value of his prior crimes. A reading of the record indicates Howard's prior convictions were admitted to show he was capable of committing the charged offense. Additionally, given the similarity between Howard's prior convictions and the offense charged, we cannot conclude Howard was not prejudiced by the admission of his prior convictions....We believe the admission of Howard's prior ABHAN convictions was more prejudicial than probative, especially in light of the offense for which he was on trial. We note that while this court previously remanded to the trial court for consideration of the [five] factors, we do not see the need for an additional remand hearing. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's admission of Howard's prior convictions and remand for a new trial.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2012/05/similar-to-its-federal-counterpartsouth-carolina-rule-of-evidence-609a1provides-that-for-the-purpose-of-attacking-the-c-1.html

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