Saturday, January 9, 2021
Evidence 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 the witness's credibility is impaired or enhanced.
So, for instance, an attorney couldn't ask whether a witness is a devout Catholic to enhance her credibility. On the other side of the coin, an attorney couldn't ask whether a witness is an atheist to impair her credibility. But what about questions regarding whether a defendant had a "come to Jesus" moment after committing the crime charged? That was the question addressed by the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee in its recent opinion in Pillars v. State, 2021 WL 57953 (Tenn.Crim.App. 2021).
In Pillars, William Pillars was charged with three counts of rape of a child and one count of aggravated sexual battery. Subsequently, defense counsel
filed a pretrial motion to prevent the State from “getting a bunch of letters” written by the Petitioner “[t]hat mentioned...kind of strange and bizarre discussions of demons and angels and stuff like that.” During the motion hearing, trial counsel mentioned Tennessee Rules of Evidence 610 and 403. The State wanted to introduce the letters “with the argument that, in essence, they're inculpatory, this explains his struggle of what he did to this child and how he was struggling with that issue.” The trial court ruled that some parts of the letters were admissible. However, the State decided not to introduce the letters at trial. The State “touched on” some of the information in the letters, specifically the Petitioner's sexual urges and his references to finding God. Trial counsel objected to the vagueness of the State's questions regarding “the type of desire or urges,” but the trial court overruled the objection. The defense raised the issue on direct appeal. Trial counsel agreed that this court “ruled that [his] objection on vagueness, I guess, was not a proper objection, that it should have been [a]...610, 403 type objection.” Regardless, this court “said specifically that those minor references to God and/or religion by the State did not enure to the [Petitioner's] prejudice.”
Pillars thereafter claimed the he received the ineffective assistance of counsel, but the Court of Criminal Appeals doubled down on the finding from direct appeal, concluding that "although this court did not directly address the Petitioner's concerns on direct appeal, this court nevertheless determined that the Petitioner suffered no prejudice. The Petitioner has failed to show he is entitled to relief in this regard."
I'd go further and say that there wasn't even deficient performance. The question(s) at trial and even the letters were not using the defendant's religion to impair his credibility, i.e., to show that he was lacking in credibility as a witness because of his religion. Instead, that evidence went to show that the defendant was trying to find religion due to the acts he committed. Therefore, there were not grounds for a viable objection under Rule 610.