Friday, February 22, 2013
No Exit: Florida Court Deems Evidence of Attempted Suicide Admissible to Prove Consciousness of Guilt
An individual is a suspect in a crime. That individual flees from the relevant jurisdiction and hides out in another jurisdiction before being apprehended and charged with the subject crime. At trial, the prosecution will be able to present evidence of the defendant's flight as circumstantial evidence of his consciousness of guilt.
An individual is a suspect in a crime. The individual tries to kill himself. At trial, will the prosecution be able to present evidence of the defendant's suicide attempt as circumstantial evidence of his consciousness of innocence? According to the recent opinion of the District Court of Appeal of Florida, Fourth District, in Sloan v. State, 2013 WL 85449 (Fla.App. 4 Dist. 2013), the answer is "yes."
In Sloan, Thomas Sloan was convicted of three counts of Lewd or Lascivious Molestation–Offender 18 or Older, Victim Under 12. On the same day that these crimes were reported by the alleged victim's mother,
the defendant called in sick at work. He reported to work the following day, but left early and did not return. He said that he traveled to Arkansas to seek employment. In explaining why, he said the state of the economy and the incident with the victim produced "very stressful circumstances." One of the defendant's co-workers testified that he fled the area because the mother was threatening to have him arrested and he needed to "take a drive and clear his head." The defendant ultimately returned to Florida before the arrest warrant was issued. Law enforcement later found the defendant after he ingested some pills in an attempted suicide. The defendant was arrested approximately two weeks later.
After he was convicted, Sloan appealed, claiming that
the trial court abused its discretion in admitting testimony relating to his suicide attempt because there was insufficient evidence to suggest it was an effort to evade prosecution or indicative of consciousness of guilt. The State respond[ed] that the evidence was properly admitted because it evinced the defendant's consciousness of guilt.
In addressing this issue, the court noted that
"'[E]vidence that a suspected person in any manner endeavors to evade a threatened prosecution by any ex post facto indication of a desire to evade prosecution is admissible against the accused where the relevance of such evidence is based on consciousness of guilt inferred from such actions.'"
This language comes from the opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida in Penalver v. State, 926 So.2d 1118 (Fla. 2006), in which the court noted that
Three states have allowed evidence of a suicide threat as proof of consciousness of guilt. See People v. O'Neil, 18 Ill.2d 461, 165 N.E.2d 319, 321 (1960) (noting that the threat of suicide was similar to flight because it tended to show consciousness of guilt); Commonwealth v. Sanchez, 416 Pa.Super. 160, 610 A.2d 1020, 1028 (1992) (observing that "manifestations of mental distress tend to demonstrate a defendant's consciousness of guilt"); State v. Seffens, No. 01–C01–9107CR00190, 1992 WL 75831, *4 (Tenn.Crim.App. Mar.16, 1992) (finding evidence that defendant threatened to kill himself and his wife was admissible because some courts "have held this evidence is analogous to evidence of flight to show a consciousness of guilt").
Of course, for such evidence to be admissible, it must be clear that the defendant in fact attempted to kill himself. And, in Penalver, that wasn't the case because the defendant actually turned himself in after saying "I might as well be dead" or "I want to kill myself." But this wasn't a problem in Sloan because
the defendant actually attempted suicide. While that attempt preceded the issuance of the arrest warrant, it occurred after the defendant was aware that law enforcement had been notified of the incident by the victim's mother. In fact, the defendant left work and the state after law enforcement was notified. A co-worker testified that the defendant fled the area due to the threat of arrest.
As such, "there was a sufficient nexus between the defendant's suicide attempt and the crime to render it admissible."
(Hat tip to Marc Ginsberg for the link)