Sunday, February 21, 2021
In Bedell v. Williams, 386 S.W.3d 493 (Ark. 2012), the Supreme Court of Arkansas implied that a judge changing a prior evidentiary ruling on the eve of trial can be grounds for a new trial, even if the new ruling was correct. That case was a malpractice action in which the defendants wanted to claim that the plaintiff's "general medical condition, and not her care or lack thereof, was the proximate cause of her pressure sores and declining health." The evidence to support this defense was contained in medical records that were deemed admissible until the eve of trial, when the judge deemed them inadmissible. In granting a new trial, the Supreme Court of Arkansas found that this about face, "at the last minute," caused the defendants to "be stripped of an entire defense that had been clearly developed throughout the litigation."
So, does this ruling generally preclude evidentiary about faces, or is it limited to certain cases? That was the question addressed by the Supreme Court of Arkansas in its recent opinion in Adams v. State, 2021 WL 633650 (Ark. 2021).
In Adams, Donald Adams was arrested and charged with rape, second-degree sexual assault, and third-degree domestic battery. After Adams was convicted, he appealed, claiming that
the circuit court abused its discretion by allowing the State to introduce evidence of suicide threats made during his arrest. Prior to trial, Adams moved to exclude evidence of his attempts to commit suicide during his arrest and while in jail. The circuit court granted his motion, holding the introduction of information on the suicide attempts would be overly prejudicial under Arkansas Rule of Evidence 403. However, in a subsequent order, the circuit court clarified its position on the suicide attempts. The court ruled the State would still be precluded from presenting testimony regarding Adams's suicide attempt in jail, but the State would be allowed to present testimony and evidence detailing the entirety of his arrest, including that he was not cooperative and threatened to harm himself during interactions with law enforcement. The court concluded that Adams's actions during his arrest could be offered to prove consciousness of guilt. At trial, Detective Conner and Detective David Undiano testified to Adams's suicide threats. The State also played a video recording of the arrest for the jury.
After finding that the circuit court did not substantively abuse its discretion by admitting this evidence, the Supreme Court of Arkansas addressed a timing argument by Adams as follows:
Additionally, Adams argues he was prejudiced by the circuit court's last-minute reversal on the admissibility of the suicide threats he made during his arrest. He contends he had prepared for trial with the understanding that such information was inadmissible only for the court to rule the day before trial that the evidence would be admissible. Adams relies on Bedell v. Williams, 2012 Ark. 75, 386 S.W.3d 493, for the proposition that eve-of-trial evidentiary rulings that significantly impact the course of litigation are frowned upon. In Bedell, we held that the circuit court abused its discretion by excluding relevant evidence at the last minute, thereby stripping the appellants of an entire defense that had been developed throughout the litigation. The circuit court's ruling in this case had no such impact. Adams was not stripped of a defense; rather, the court's reversal allowed the State to present evidence relevant to its case. Moreover, the court noted at the initial hearing that its ruling on the matter was subject to change.