EvidenceProf Blog

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

Friday, July 25, 2008

And No Religion Too, Take 2: North Carolina Court Finds Trial Court Didn't Err In Admitting Religious Evidence

I previously posted two entries (here and here) that were very critical of the admission of religious evidence in trials.  As I noted in the second of those posts, "any evidence concerning an individual's religious beliefs or lack thereof is highly prejudicial and should only be admissible if it has a direct bearing on a case."  Well, I think that I found such a case.

In State v. Rankin, 2008 WL 2726637 (N.C. App. 2008), John Fitzgerald Rankin appealed from his convictions for first degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon.  At trial, the prosecution had presented evidence establishing the following:

     Hawkins spent the weekend of August 13th, 2004 with his cousin, "Junior," and his son, Cedric Hawkins. On August 16th, Hawkins and Rankin told Junior that they were going to "make a lick," which Hawkins explained at trial meant commit a robbery. At 3:15 p.m. on that same day, Kevin Ritchie was found stabbed to death in his home, with approximately twenty to thirty firearms later determined to be missing from his home.  Ritchie and Rankin went to school together and had been in close communication prior to Ritchie's deathWithin a week of Ritchie's death, two of his rifles were pawned by Junior and his friend Timothy Allison, with a third rifle later found in the trunk of Allison's car. Upon questioning by the police, Junior alleged that he received the weapons from Rankin shortly after the Ritchie's death.

One argument that Rankin made on appeal was that the trial court erred by allowing the prosecution to present evidence identifying another witness and him as Muslim.  This evidence consisted of recordings of certain phone calls made by Rankin to Chantay Brown, a woman with whom he had been involved in the past.  While Brown's initial testimony provided Rankin with an alibi for the time of the murder, she later retracted that statement and testified that Rankin asked her via calls and letters to provide him with an alibi for the time of the crime.  Specifically, Brown testified that, per her religious beliefs, when Rankin asked her to provide an alibi for him, she felt obligated to do so, which is why she initially testified that he had been with her at the time of the murder.  More specifically, when the prosecutor asked Brown during voir dire whether her religious beliefs and the fact that Rankin was of the same faith affected the way she reacted to Rankin's request, she testified: "You're supposed to help them, assist them, if you can. You're supposed to help him. That's why I did agree to help him."

On appeal, Rankin claimed that the admission of this religious evidence "unfairly prejudiced the jury against him, as the jury could well have anti-Muslim beliefs, and that any probative value of the evidence was outweighed by its prejudicial effect.  As I did in my previous posts, I will start by noting that the evidence at issue was not excluded by North Carolina Rule of Evidence 610, which states that "[e]vidence of the beliefs or opinions of a witness on matters of religion is not admissible for the purpose of showing that by reason of their nature his credibility is impaired or enhanced; provided, however, such evidence may be admitted for the purpose of showing interest or bias."  This Rule did not make the evidence inadmissible because the prosecution was not using evidence of the shared faith of Brown and Rankin to argue that Muslims are liars and that their testimony thus can't be trusted. 

Instead, the prosecution used evidence of their shared faith to establish, essentially, bias:  that Rankin improperly used, and Brown was influenced by, their shared faith, leading to her initially providing him with a false alibi.  I think that the Advisory Committee's Note to Federal Rule of Evidence 610 puts it best when it says that "[w]hile the rule forecloses inquiry into the religious beliefs or opinions of a witness for the purpose of showing that his character for truthfulness is affected by their nature, an inquiry for the purpose of showing interest or bias because of them is not within the prohibition."

So, this explains why Rule 610 was not an issue, and I also think that it explains why the probative value of the religious evidence was not substantially outweighed by dangers such as the dangers of unfair prejudice under North Carolina Rule of Evidence 403.  This was a situation where religion had a direct bearing on the case.  It gave jurors a specific reason to discount Brown's initial alibi and a specific reason to discount Rankin's innocence.

(Here is the Volokh Conspiracy post on the case)



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