EvidenceProf Blog

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

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

No Right: Supreme Court Finds RIght to Present a Defense Doesn't Preclude Application of Anti-Extrinsic Evidence Rule

The right to present a defense is a right that has always fascinated me. A few years ago, I wrote about it in the article, Dismissed with Prejudice: Why Application of the Anti-Jury Impeachment Rule to Allegations of Racial, Religious, or Other Bias Violates the Right to Present a Defense. That article addressed the intersection between the right and the rules of evidence. Specifically, it questioned whether the right to present a defense should trump Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) in cases in which there is evidence of juror racial, religious or other bias during deliberations.

Yesterday, in Nevada v. Jackson, the Supreme Court addressed another such intersection. How did the Court rule?

In Jackson, Calvin Jackson was charged with raping his ex-girlfriend, Annette Heathmon. Initially, Heathmon alleged that Jackson committed this crime, but,

Shortly before trial, Heathmon sent the judge a letter recanting her prior accusations and stating that she would not testify. She went into hiding, but police eventually found her and took her into custody as a material witness. Once in custody, Heathmon disavowed the letter and agreed to testify. When asked about the letter at trial, she stated that three of [Jackson]'s associates had forced her to write it and had threatened to hurt her if she appeared in court.


At trial, the theory of the defense was that Heathmon had fabricated the sexual assault and had reported it to police in an effort to control respondent. To support that theory, the defense sought to introduce testimony and police reports showing that Heathmon had called the police on several prior occasions claiming that [Jackson] had raped or otherwise assaulted her. Police were unable to corroborate many of these prior allegations, and in several cases they were skeptical of her claims. Although the trial court gave the defense wide latitude to cross-examine Heathmon about those prior incidents, it refused to admit the police reports or to allow the defense to call as witnesses the officers involved. The jury found [Jackson] guilty, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

After he was convicted, Jackson 

appealed his conviction to the Nevada Supreme Court, arguing, among other things, that the trial court's refusal to admit extrinsic evidence relating to the prior incidents violated his federal constitutional right to present a complete defense, but the Nevada Supreme Court rejected that argument.

Jackson then filed a federal habeas petition, with the district court denying relief but the Ninth Circuit granting relief finding that

that extrinsic evidence of Heathmon's prior allegations was critical to respondent's defense, that the exclusion of that evidence violated respondent's constitutional right to present a defense, and that the Nevada Supreme Court's decision to the contrary was an unreasonable application of this Court's precedents....Although it acknowledged that the state court had ruled that the evidence was inadmissible as a matter of state law, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the impact of the State's rules of evidence on the defense "was disproportionate to the state's interest in...exclusion."

Before we get to the Supreme Court's opinion, let's dig into the relevant law. The trial court's decision to exclude the extrinsic evidence of prior false allegation was based in part on Nevada Revised Statute Section 50.085(3), which provides that

Specific instances of the conduct of a witness, for the purpose of attacking or supporting the witness’s credibility, other than conviction of crime, may not be proved by extrinsic evidence. They may, however, if relevant to truthfulness, be inquired into on cross-examination of the witness or on cross-examination of a witness who testifies to an opinion of his or her character for truthfulness or untruthfulness, subject to the general limitations upon relevant evidence and the limitations upon interrogation and subject to the provisions of NRS 50.090

This rule of evidence is pretty similar to Federal Rule of Evidence 608(b) and state counterparts. In Miller v. State, 779 P.2d 87, 88–89 (Nev. 1989), however, the Supreme Court of Nevada found that a criminal defendant can present extrinsic evidence of prior false allegations of sexual assault by the defendant but only if he files pre-trial written notice. Jackson did not file pre-trial written notice, making this precedent inapplicable.

Thus, the question for the Supreme Court was whether Nevada's application of its prohibition on the introduction of extrinsic evidence for impeachment purposes violated Jackson's right to present a defense. So, what is that right?  According to the Supreme Court in Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683, 690 (1986),

Whether rooted directly in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or in the Compulsory Process or Confrontation Clauses of the Sixth Amendment, the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.

In essence, a state violates this rule when it applies a rule of evidence in a manner that is arbitrary or disproportionate to the purposes that they were designed to serve. Is this what Nevada did? According to the Supreme Court, the answer was "no" because

the court reasoned that the proffered evidence had little impeachment value because at most it showed simply that the victim's reports could not be corroborated. The admission of extrinsic evidence of specific instances of a witness' conduct to impeach the witness' credibility may confuse the jury, unfairly embarrass the victim, surprise the prosecution, and unduly prolong the trial. No decision of this Court clearly establishes that the exclusion of such evidence for such reasons in a particular case violates the Constitution.



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Um, if the witness lies, the defendant can't put on extrinsic evidence that the witness may have lied? It seems that an allegation is weaker if it is uncorroborated, and should tend to favor the defendant, but perish the thought because it helps the defendant. The courts have become part of the prosecution team.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 7, 2013 8:11:22 PM

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