EvidenceProf Blog

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

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cart Before the Horse?: D.C. Court of Appeals Rejects Defendant's Conditional Relevance Appeal

Federal Rule of Evidence 104(b) provides that

When the relevance of evidence depends on whether a fact exists, proof must be introduced sufficient to support a finding that the fact does exist. The court may admit the proposed evidence on the condition that the proof be introduced later. (emphasis added).

In Hagraves v. United States, 2013 WL 173228 (D.C. 2013), a defendant appealed from his conviction, claiming that the trial court erred in precluding him from doing a conditional admission pursuant to the last sentence of Rule 104(b). So, what did the court find?

In Hagraves, Ronald English and other defendants were charged by indictment with multiple offenses arising from a shooting and homicide on March 7, 2006, in the vicinity of 30th and P Streets, S.E. At trial, English sought to introduce evidence that the homicide victim, Michael Beckham, had a violent character.

The trial judge allowed English to present this evidence of Beckham's violent character because it was relevant to his claim that he killed Beckham in self-defense. But the judge ruled that English first had to lay the predicate for its admission by presenting some evidence that he had acted in self-defense. As a practical matter, this ruling made it necessary for English to take the stand and explain his actions to the jury before, rather than after, the jury heard the other defense witnesses' testimony about Beckham's reputation and violent acts.

After he was convicted, English appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial judge's ruling "impaired the persuasiveness of his testimony" and thus "infringed his constitutional rights to the effective assistance of counsel and to present a defense."

English's appeal was two-pronged. He claimed both (1) that the trial judge erroneously assumed that he could not admit the character evidence before English presented evidence that he was acting in self-defense; and (2) that the trial judge should have allowed him to put the cart before the horse by admitting the character evidence on the condition that the proof be introduced later. The D.C. Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that

In our view the record affirmatively shows that the trial judge did not labor under any misapprehension that an "ironclad rule" governed his decision. On the contrary, the judge was aware of his discretionary authority and exercised it. He considered allowing English to introduce the evidence of Beckham's violent acts conditionally, recognizing that he could strike the evidence if need be. Ultimately, however, the judge found that English's preference was outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice to the government from the admission of evidence powerfully besmirching the decedent's character in the event English failed to present evidence that he acted in self-defense-prejudice that would not necessarily be dispelled by the remedy of formally striking the prior bad act evidence and instructing the jury to disregard it.



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