Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
State v. Driscoll, 55 S.W.3d 350 (Mo. 2001).
This case addresses the following issue:
What constitutes inappropriate and inadmissible character evidence?
Character evidence is not favored by the law. Id. at 354. Such evidence is less about what has occurred in a case, and more about the kind of people (or organizations) the parties are. Id. In this case, the court was asked to determine if it was appropriate to note the criminal Defendant’s membership in the Aryan Brotherhood—a white supremacist prison gang—in his trial for capital murder. Id. Ultimately, the court found such information to be improper character evidence, in that its very limited logical relevance was dwarfed by how prejudicial the information was to the Defendant. Id.
The Defendant in this case was already incarcerated at the time of his accused crime. Id. at 352. Correction officers came to take another inmate out of his cell, leading to a riot. Id. Defendant was accused of bringing a make-shift knife to this melee and stabbing an officer (who was also white, like Defendant) to death. Id. During the trial, the State presented evidence of Defendant’s membership in the Aryan Brotherhood. Id. at 352-53. This evidence included a tattoo, a description of what the gang was and stood for, and the fact that “killing and murder” was “a way of life” for gang members. Id. at 353. All parties agree that the use of such evidence was “minimal.” Id.
The court began by dealing with a United States Supreme Court case that dealt with similar evidence: Dawson v. Delaware, 503 U.S. 159 (1992). In that case, the Supreme Court had held that evidence of membership in Aryan Brotherhood, without any further evidence of violent acts committed by the organization, made such evidence inadmissible in the sentencing phase of a prosecution. Id. at 354. However, the Court had left open the possibility that such evidence could be admissible in the right circumstances, noting that “associational evidence might serve a legitimate purpose.” Id.
Despite the cautioning of Dawson, the court did not find that the evidence in this case was properly admitted. Id. This is because “the law is well-settled that evidence of uncharged misconduct is inadmissible if it is offered for the purpose of showing a defendant’s propensity to commit crimes.” Id. Only if such evidence is both logically and legally relevant may it be admitted. Id. To be logically relevant, evidence must have “some legitimate tendency to establish directly the accused’s guilt.” Id. If this logical relevance exists, then it must also be more probative than prejudicial. Id.
Turning to Defendant’s membership in the Aryan Brotherhood, the court found that there may be some logical relevance (though the court noted even that was “tenuous at best”), the evidence was grossly more prejudicial than probative. Id. at 354-55. The evidence really only “enabled the State to portray Defendant as a person of bad character.” Id. at 355. Thus, it was an error to admit such evidence. Id. at 358. The court also found that the error was so prejudicial as to warrant a new trial for the Defendant. Id.