Washington Appeals Court Reverses Conviction Based on Admission of Prejudicial Calls

Challenging irrelevant or prejudicial evidence is often a significant part of defense in a Washington state criminal case.  Evidence of prior bad acts by the defendant is not admissible to show the defendant’s propensity to commit the charged crime, but may be admissible for other purposes, such as showing intent or motive.  Even if there is an allowable reason to admit evidence of a prior bad act, it must be excluded if the risk of unfair prejudice substantially outweighs its probative value.

A defendant successfully challenged his conviction after a trial court allowed evidence of an alleged assault on his girlfriend that occurred prior to the events leading to the charges.  His girlfriend called 911 and reported being assaulted by the defendant.  She said he was intoxicated and had punched her.  There were then sounds of her screaming and repeatedly saying “Stop” on the recording.  There were also what the appeals court referred to as “hitting sounds.” Someone else then told the operator that the girlfriend looked to be “hurt quite badly” and provided a description of the defendant and his vehicle.  The girlfriend provided the defendant’s name and said he had beaten her.

According to the appeals court opinion, the defendant later wrecked his truck.  A woman subsequently found the defendant coming up her basement stairs.  He told her he was hiding from the police because he had been abused and framed by his girlfriend.  The woman ultimately called 911.  Law enforcement found a large knife belonging to the woman in the defendant’s waistband when they arrested him.

The defendant called his mother from jail and discussed the incident involving his girlfriend.

The state charged him with hit and run, obstructing a law enforcement officer, and residential burglary with a deadly weapon sentencing enhancement.  The defendant was found not guilty of hit and run, but guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer.  The court declared a mistrial on the residential burglary charge and the sentencing enhancement because the jury was unable to come to a verdict.

The state sought to admit the recordings of both the 911 call and the defendant’s call to his mother in the second trial, arguing they showed intent and motive to commit a crime.  The state also argued they were admissible as “res gestae evidence” that provided “a link in the chain” of the events.  The defendant argued the calls were more prejudicial than probative.  The court allowed both calls to be admitted, instructing the jury to consider them only to provide a complete picture and context to the events or to assess “motive, credibility, intent, knowledge, absence of mistake, or to rebut a material assertion.” The state played the 911 call before calling any witnesses.

The defendant argued that a reference to a rape allegation in the call with his mother made the call “inflammatory.” The state argued the call showed he was in flight and aware of the allegations against him, and that was why he was trying to get away and committed the acts leading to the charges.  The court required the state to skip any reference to rape, but otherwise allowed the recording to be played.

The jury found the defendant guilty of residential burglary and found he was armed with a deadly weapon.  The defendant appealed, arguing the court erred in admitting the recordings of the calls.

Generally, evidence of prior misconduct is not admissible to show the defendant’s propensity to commit the crime he is charged with.  Evidence of prior misconduct may be admitted for other purposes, however, including showing motive or intent.  To admit evidence of prior misconduct, the court must first find that the misconduct actually occurred, identify the purpose of allowing the evidence, determine its relevance in proving an element of the crime, and weigh the probative value against the risk of prejudice.  If unfair prejudice substantially outweighs the probative value of the evidence, it must not be admitted. Evidence is unfairly prejudicial if it is likely to result in an emotional response in the jury rather than a rational determination.

A court may admit evidence of the defendant’s collateral misconduct as res gestae evidence if it proves the immediate contexts of the events to give a complete picture of the crime.  Res gestae evidence, however, is also subject to exclusion if the risk of unfair prejudice substantially outweighs its probative value.

The appeals court found the 911 call “likely inflamed the passions of the jury” by identifying the defendant “as a violent and dangerous man.” The danger of unfair prejudice substantially outweighed the probative value it had to show intent or motive.

The appeals court found the call to the defendant’s mother from jail was not res gestae evidence because it occurred several hours after the incident.  The appeals court found only a “speculative” connection between that call and the defendant’s intent and motive in entering the woman’s home because the discussion focused on the earlier incident with the defendant’s girlfriend.  The appeals court also found the call drew the jury’s attention to the assault, and the nature of the conversation regarding the defendant’s sexual relationship with his girlfriend likely increased the prejudicial effect.  The appeals court found the risk of unfair prejudice substantially outweighed the probative value of the recording of this call.

The appeals court further found that admission of the recordings was not harmless error.  For a conviction to be reversed based on improper admission of evidence, there must be a reasonable probability the verdict would have been materially different if the evidence had not been admitted.  The appeals court found the recordings were highly prejudicial and played a prominent role in the prosecution.  The appeals court reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded for a new trial.

If you are facing criminal charges, the experienced Washington criminal defense attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC, can fight to protect your rights and help ensure a fair process.  Call us at (206) 622-6562 to schedule a meeting to discuss your case.