The Court of Appeals in Jackson v. U.S., decided on June 27, 2019, determined whether the trial court had erred in admitting evidence of prior PCP use by the defendant before committing assault with a deadly weapon. (“ADW”).
Factually, appellant was convicted of assaulting his roommate with a knife and prior to the trial, the government moved to admit evidence of recent use of PCP to bolster a case for erratic behavior by the defendant prior to the assault.
The court admitted the evidence justifying that such would provide context and serve to explain the defendant’s observations, beliefs, and behaviors in that there was a close temporal relationship between defendant’s use of PCP and the attack that followed. Moreover, the probative value of the evidence was not tipped or substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.
Witnesses described the defendant prior to the assault as dis-conjointed, erratic and demonic-like due to PCP use.
Generally, evidence of other crimes is inadmissible to prove disposition to commit the charged offense. However, propensity and capacity to commit a crime – a rational explanation for behavior to ensue would be admissible: there must be a nexus in that the behavior;
- Is direct and substantial proof of the charged crime,
- Is closely intertwined with the evidence of the charged crime, or
- Is necessary to place the charged crime in an understandable context.
That is, evidence of another crime is admissible when relevant to explain the immediate circumstances surrounding the offense charged. When other crimes’ evidence is too intimately entangled with the charged criminal conduct, then such evidence would be admissible as long as the probative value does not outweigh the prejudicial one.
The balancing act of admitting such evidence hinges on:
- The need for the evidence,
- The efficacy of alternative proof, and
- The degree to which the evidence probably will rouse the jury to overmastering hostility.
Here however although the recent (18 hours prior) use of the PCP by the defendant supported the propensity for the assaultive and aggressive conduct, the jury was left to determine and evaluate the effects of PCP for which without expert testimony a lay juror cannot reasonably deliberate on.
In short, expert testimony was required when the key question is whether and how PCP continues to affect a particular individual hours after ingestion and alter their behavior and conduct.
The lack of expert testimony impacted both the probative value and prejudicial effect. Furthermore, without expert testimony, the PCP evidence was prejudicial in that evidence of an individual’s drug use may inherently have a prejudicial effect. Here, the prejudicial effect was compounded by the lack of expert witness qualifying the impact of PCP use.
The trial court exercised its discretion erroneously in admitting evidence of the PCP use without expert testimony and as the jury’s reliance on this unqualified evidence was significant — reversal of the conviction was warranted.
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