EvidenceProf Blog

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

Monday, April 13, 2009

Your Only Self Defense: Court Of Appeals Of Louisana Engaged In Incorrect Right To Present A Defense Analysis In Murder Appeal

Most states, including Louisiana, have rules of evidence that govern the admissibility of evidence in their courts. Those rules, however, are not highest law of the land and must bow in the face of higher laws. One of those laws is the United States Constitution, and in Crane v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court found that:

 "[w]hether 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."

Appellate courts have found this right to be violated when trial courts apply state rules of evidence in a fashion that is technically correct but "mechanistic" or arbitrary or disproportionate to the purposes that the rule is designed to serve. In other words, an appellate court cannot simply respond to an appellant's claim that a trial court violated his right to present a defense by excluding evidence based upon the conclusion that the trial court properly applied a rule of evidence. And yet, that is exactly what the Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Second Circuit, did in State v. Thomas, 2009 WL 929388 (La.App. 2 Cir. 2009).

In Thomas, Dennis Thomas and Carlos Chambers got into a fight over Chambers's girlfriend; that fight unquestionably ended with Thomas fatally shooting Chambers. The question at Thomas' subsequent murder trial was how and why the shooting started. Claiming self-defense, Thomas asserted that he saw Chambers grab for a gun and start to point it at him, which is why he shot Chambers. Thomas' testimony was partially corroborated by the testimony of Dwight Davis, who claimed that Chambers was asking where a gun was and saying that he was going to shoot Thomas soon before Chambers himself was shot. But his testimony was contradicted by the testimony of Chambers' girlfriend, Teouna Fuller, who claimed that Chambers was neither threatening Thomas nor carrying a gun at the time that he was shot. 

What the trial judge did not hear (Thomas opted for a bench trial) was the grand jury testimony of eyewitness Crystal Brown, whom the Court of Appeal merely indicated was "unavailable" at trial. According to Brown,

[Thomas] was walking up the sidewalk coming from a store drinking a Sprite. A car pulled up and they were standing there arguing. In a few minutes they stopped arguing. [Chambers] went to reach for something or whatever. But [Thomas] reached in his pocket, pulled out a gun, made three shots. The young lady screamed. The car sped off and he went up on the sidewalk.  

The Court of Appeal found that the trial court properly excluded this testimony for two reasons. First, the court noted that grand jury testimony is only potentially admissible if it favorable to the accused and material on the issue of his guilt or innocence. And, according to the court, Brown's testimony

was not exculpatory. Ms. Brown did not say she saw a weapon, only that the victim "went to reach for something or whatever." She confirmed that Chambers never fired a shot but that Thomas fired several shots. In short, her testimony is cumulative and not truly exculpatory.

My response is, "Cumulative to what?" In reading the court's opinion, I did not see any witness besides the defendant testifying that Chambers was reaching for something before Thomas shot him. And I have never seen a court refer to the testimony of one witness who (partially) corroborates the defendant's version of events as "cumulative."

Furthermore, I don't see how the court deemed Brown's testimony non-exculpatory. Sure, Brown merely said that she saw Chambers reaching for something, not that she saw him pull (or shoot) a gun. But Thomas did not have to prove that Chambers had a gun or would have shot him. All he had to prove to establish self-defense was that he reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of losing his life or receiving great bodily harm and that his killing of Chambers was necessary to save himself from that danger. Sure, testimony by Brown that she saw Chambers pull (or shoot) a gun would have been great, but the simple fact that he was reaching for something (especially when combined with Davis' testimony) was certainly exculpatory.

Second, the court found that Brown's grand jury testimony was inadmissible under La. C.E. art. 804(B)(1), which provides an exception to the rule against hearsay for

Testimony given as a witness at another hearing of the same or a different proceeding, if the party against whom the testimony is now offered...had an opportunity and similar motive to develop the testimony by direct, cross, or redirect testimony.

The problem for Thomas was that some (but not all) courts find that the State's motive to develop the testimony of witnesses before the grand jury is not similar to its motive to develop the testimony of witnesses at trial. This is what the State argued and the trial court accepted, and the Court of Appeal affirmed, finding that "the state's construction of La. C.E. art. 804(B)(1), while perhaps overbroad, is essentially correct." 

And that was it for the Court of Appeals' analysis. It merely held that the trial court applied the rule correctly. As noted above, the court should have gone on to address whether the trial court's application of the rule was nonetheless mechanistic of arbitrary and disproportionate to the purposes that the rule was designed to serve. Or, as some courts have put it, the court should have gone on to address whether the trial court applied the rule in an "overbroad manner. See, e.g., Ramos v. Phillips, 2006 WL 3681150 (E.D.N.Y. 2006) ("In this vein, the Second Circuit has noted that the Supreme Court has drawn a distinction between a state's blanket evidentiary prohibitions that may be overbroad, and a state trial court's ordinary evidentiary rulings upon which the Supreme Court has been reluctant to impose restraints."); People v. Kirchner, 2008 WL 62551 (Cal. App. 3 Dist. 2008) ("[S]tates have broad latitude to establish rules excluding evidence, and such rules do not violate a defendant's right to present a defense as long as they are not arbitrary or overbroad.").   
Well, actually, the Court of Appeal did inadvertently address this point by finding that the state's construction of the rule was "perhaps overbroad," but it then failed to address why this did or did not violate Thomas' right to present a defense.



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