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Special Relevance Defeats FRE Prior Bad Acts Challenge

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on September 26, 2012 4:04 PM

A cocaine trial and a botched murder culminated in the rejection of the defendant’s appeal this week, in the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

The underlying case involved a conspiracy to distribute cocaine. While the trial was pending, a federal witness was stabbed several times. The witness survived and his assailant received a 360-month sentence, which he appealed.

On appeal, he claimed that the District Court shouldn't have allowed certain documents and testimony at the trial. He also claimed that the statements made by the prosecution in the closing arguments prejudiced his case.

The evidence consisted of several letters from the defendant to a friend, where the defendant seemed to be eliciting false testimony.

Also included as evidence was a statement, of which the court took judicial notice. The statement was stipulated by both parties and discussed a prior case where the defendant had been involved in an attempted murder. This statement also made mention of a witness in the prior case who subsequently recanted her testimony.

The defendant raised the "prior bad acts" evidentiary prohibition relating to the documents admitted at trial. However, the appellate court raised the "special relevance" argument, stating that the documents served a greater purpose than showing "mere propensity to behave a certain way."

As for the issue of prejudice, the court rejected that argument. The First Circuit Court of Appeals stated that the potential prejudicial effect of the evidence was mitigated by the cautionary instructions given by the trial judge, which addressed the jury's ability to weigh the evidence.

The judge also took care to prevent the government from narrowing in on the reason behind the former witness' recanted testimony.

The lesson here: While law school may have taught us that prior bad acts are inadmissible, the rule is far more complex. Be wary of the special relevance rules and the method in which the evidence is received by the court.

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