When you are attempting to overturn a conviction in a criminal case, based upon an error by the trial judge in admitting evidence, there are multiple hurdles you must clear. You must not only prove that the judge made a mistake but also prove that the mistake had a “reasonable probability” of altering the outcome. In a recent domestic violence case, the Washington Supreme Court upheld a man’s conviction because, even though evidence of his past acts was admitted for a wrong reason, there was no reasonable probability that the man would have been found not guilty in the absence of the error.
The case centered on an incident in Vancouver over Memorial Day Weekend in 2013. Police went to an apartment on Friday, seeking a pair of suspects regarding outstanding warrants for robbery and auto theft, but received no response at the door. They came back on Monday and obtained a key. Entering the apartment, they met Makayla Gamble in the living room. After taking Gamble and her children out of the apartment, Gamble told them that Baron Ashley, Jr., who was one of the suspects with the outstanding warrants (as well as her ex-boyfriend and the father of two of her children) was inside and had detained her in a bathroom since Friday, instructing her to tell the police he was not inside the apartment.
That act of detaining Gamble in the bathroom led prosecutors to charge Ashley with unlawful imprisonment with domestic violence. As part of their case, the state sought to introduce proof of Ashley’s previous domestic violence against Gamble. The state argued that its case required this evidence in order to show how Gamble was held without her consent, even though Ashley never made any explicit threats. Ashley, the state argued at trial, was able to coerce Gamble “through a form of intimidation that Gamble recognized and complied with due to the violent nature of their prior relationship.”
The judge allowed the evidence and instructed the jury that they were only allowed to consider Ashley’s past acts of domestic violence in the context of determining Gamble’s credibility and whether or not she consented to remaining in the apartment bathroom with Ashley. The jury found Ashley guilty as charged. Ashley appealed to the Washington Court of Appeals, arguing that the trial judge never should have allowed the evidence of his past acts of domestic violence, but the appeals court upheld the conviction.
He then took his case to the Supreme Court. Ashley again challenged the admissibility of the evidence of his past acts. For evidence like this, the law requires courts to consider four things: whether the prior acts actually occurred, the purpose for which the prosecution seeks to introduce the evidence, the evidence’s relevance to the current case, and the “probative value versus prejudicial effect.” This fourth element requires the judge to weigh the evidence’s value in proving or disproving an aspect of the case against the likelihood that the proof would unfairly prejudice the jurors against the defendant.
In this case, the Supreme Court concluded that the evidence satisfied the first three elements, and it also met the fourth with regard to proving Gamble’s lack of consent. However, the prejudicial effect exceeded the value of the evidence in terms of its value in assessing Gamble’s credibility, and it should not have been admitted for that purpose.
Even though the trial court should not have admitted the evidence for the purpose of judging Gamble’s credibility, the conviction stood. Sometimes, even when a judge makes an erroneous evidentiary admission decision at trial, that mistake may not be enough to overturn a conviction. To secure a reversal of your conviction, you must not only show that the evidence was wrongfully admitted but also show that the mistake was a “harmful error,” meaning that there was a reasonable probability that the mistake affected the outcome of the case. In Ashley’s case, even if the judge had told the jury to consider the past acts of violence only for assessing whether Ashley intimidated Gamble (and not for determining Gamble’s credibility), there was no reasonable probability that the outcome would have been any different.
In your domestic violence or other criminal case, one of the key factors in getting a fair trial is guarding against the introduction of evidence that should not be admitted into your trial. The Pierce County/Tacoma domestic violence attorneys at Smith & White, PLLC have years of experience helping people facing criminal charges. Call us today at 253-363-8662 to schedule your initial consultation. The first consultation is free.