Thursday, January 14, 2021
Florida Court Finds Trial Court Erred in Excluding Evidence That Someone Other Than the Defendant Had a Motive to Kill the Victim
Similar fact evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is admissible when relevant to prove a material fact in issue, including, but not limited to, proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident, but it is inadmissible when the evidence is relevant solely to prove bad character or propensity.
Typically, these rules are used by prosecutors to prove a criminal defendant's motive, opportunity, etc. But, at the federal level, defendants can use "reverse 404(b)" evidence to show, for instance, that someone else had a motive to commit the crime charged. And, as the recent opinion of the District Court of Appeal of Florida, Third District, in Posey v. State, 2021 WL 115437 (Fla.App.3rd 2021), makes clear, Florida similarly allows for "reverse Williams" evidence.
In Posey, Dontrell Posey
allegedly abducted Omarr Wallace from the front of a Miami convenience store, took him to a field near the store and shot him to death. The environs of this store were known for drug activity. A witness named Anganette Wallace (no relation to the victim) worked in the store and knew that Omarr Wallace sold drugs in front of the store and knew that another man, Ryan Stokes, sold drugs in the field near the store. In her pre-trial deposition, Anganette Wallace testified that on a day shortly before the murder, Stokes, upset that Omarr Wallace was stealing Stokes's customers, confronted Omarr Wallace and told him to stop selling drugs in Stokes's territory. According to Anganette Wallace, Omarr Wallace told Stokes “he wasn't going nowhere.”
The trial court, however, deemed Wallace's testimony about Stokes had a motive to kill the victim inadmissible.
After Posey was convicted, he appealed, and the appellate court noted that character evidence offered to prove motive is governed by section 90.404(2)(a), which codified the opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida in Williams v. State, 110 So. 2d 654, 662 (Fla. 1959). Moreover, the court noted that "Where typically the prosecution invokes the Williams rule in order to introduce evidence of the defendant's similar, relevant other crimes, this Court...has recognized a defendant's right to offer similar-crime evidence to 'show his innocence by proof of the guilt of another.'"
Applying this analysis, the court held that
In this case, Posey sought, through the testimony of Anganette Wallace, to introduce testimony of “other crimes, wrongs or acts” of Stokes (and, by association, Omarr Wallace), namely, that the two were competing drug dealers vying for customers on the same turf. Posey sought to introduce this evidence not to prove the “bad character or propensity” of Stokes or Omarr Wallace, but rather, to prove a material fact of his defense that Stokes was the culprit: i.e., Stokes's motive for killing Omarr Wallace....
Posey argues that if Stokes had been charged with the murder of Omarr Wallace, the evidence of their confrontation would be admissible at trial. It would show motive. Stokes and Omarr Wallace allegedly were rival drug dealers. Anganette Wallace's testimony of their confrontation – in which Omarr Wallace refused Stokes's demand that he stop selling from the convenience store location – would have the purpose of showing Stokes's motive to eliminate Omarr Wallace in a turf war. Because this “reverse Williams rule” evidence would have been admissible as against Stokes, it was error to exclude it.