Criminal Law Blog

Trial judges must determine the admissibility of a defendant's prior acquittals on a case-by-case basis.

De’Andre Williams v. United States, No. 11-CF-526 (decided October 10, 2013)
Players: Appellate judges: Glickman, Blackburne-Rigsby, Beckwith.  Opinion by Judge Beckwith.  Peter Meyers for De’Andre Williams.  Trial judge: Michael Rankin.

Facts: Two days after a double murder, police arrested Mr. Williams near the scene after he allegedly fled from them and, while fleeing, dropped a firearm consistent with the murder weapon.  Mr. Williams’s defense theory was that the officers lost sight of the suspect during part of the chase and misidentified Mr. Williams as the person who had fled and dropped the gun.
Prior to his murder trial, Mr. Williams was charged, tried, and acquitted on the charge of possessing a firearm (as a felon) arising from these events.  Notwithstanding his acquittal on the firearm-possession charge, Mr. Williams’s murder prosecution was largely based on the same evidence that he had possessed the firearm in question.  
After the trial court admitted the firearm-possession evidence over defense objection, Mr. Williams sought to counteract the evidence by informing the jury about his prior acquittal, but the trial court disagreed and excluded evidence of the acquittal.
Issue 1: Did the trial court abuse its discretion by excluding evidence of Mr. Williams’s acquittal on the felon-in-possession charge, offered on the theory that it would help the jury make a “fair and balanced consideration of the evidence.”
Holding 1: No.  In this case of first impression, the Court concluded that admission of prior-acquittal evidence, offered to help the jury assess the value of prior-crimes evidence, is “ultimately a discretionary decision” for the trial court.  That discretion was not abused here because the court properly balanced probative value against prejudice and did not follow a “rigid policy of inadmissibility.”
Of note:
·         Although the Court affirmed the exclusion of acquittal evidence in this case, it made clear that such evidence can be admissible and should be evaluated on a “case-by-case” basis.
·         The Court generally agreed with federal courts that acquittals “often will be of limited relevance to prove or disprove a fact at issue in the prior trial,” and might run into hearsay problems when offered for that purpose, but also stated that in some cases acquittals can be highly relevant for a nonhearsay purpose “to correct for the likelihood that jurors have made a mistaken inference that the defendant was tried and found guilty of the prior crimes.”
·         The Court emphasized that on appeal Mr. Williams did not raise two other potentially promising arguments, i.e. that his acquittal should have: (1) estopped the government from relitigating whether he had possessed the firearm, and (2) influenced the trial court’s decision that there was clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Williams had possessed the firearm, warranting its admission at trial as prior-crimes evidence under Drew.
Issue 2: Did the trial court abuse its discretion by refusing to dismiss the case or give a missing-evidence instruction as discovery sanctions based on the police’s failure to preserve the murder victims’ clothing and the car in which the murder occurred?
Holding 2: No.  Dismissal is an appropriate discovery violation only when the government has acted in bad faith, and the trial court reasonably found that the officers’ lapses here were merely negligent, not in bad faith.  To the extent that the trial court refused a defense request for a missing-evidence instruction, any error was harmless because the defense powerfully argued in closing that the police’s investigative lapses gave reason to doubt.
Issue 3: Did the trial court’s error in accidentally giving the jury an unredacted copy of a transcript of a witness’s testimony at Mr. Williams’s prior trial substantially sway the verdict?

Holding 3: No.  The record gave no reason to suspect that the jury read or relied on the unredacted parts of the transcript before the trial court realized the mistake and redressed it by instructing the jury to limit itself to the redacted transcript.  JM.