The Strength of your Initial-Aggressor Evidence may Determine its Admissibility
State v. Williams (ICA February 29, 2016)
Background. Joshua Williams was indicted for attempted murder in the second degree. David Quindt. Williams and Quindt were friends. On the night of the incident, Quindt and Williams were supposed to meet and drive over to another friend’s house. Williams was late and Quindt was annoyed and felt disrespected for making him wait for Williams. When Williams showed up and got into the car they got into an argument. At one point, Williams hops in the backseat while Quindt kept driving. While Quindt was driving, Williams took a knife and stabbed him in the neck, face, and forearm. Quindt drove to the Waianae Mall Shopping Center and they both got out. Williams agreed to take Quindt to a nearby hospital. Police interrogated Williams, who lied at first and said that they had been attacked by three men at a beach. He changed his story later and said it was in self-defense.
Before trial, Williams filed notice of an intention to introduce evidence of Quindt’s “prior bad acts” pursuant to HRE Rule 404(b). Specifically Williams sought to introduce evidence that Quindt would “bully, berate, insult, criticize, and demean” Williams about his life choices and bragged about: doing “hard time” in California, learning to fight in jail, his knowledge of gangs and gang-bangers, getting away with murder because someone else to the rap, and getting off on the charge due to a technicality. The prosecution moved to exclude the evidence.
Just before opening statements, the circuit court held a hearing on the issue. Williams argued that the evidence went to Williams’ state of mind in support of the self-defense claim. The prosecution countered that Quindt had been exonerated for the California murder. The case was one of mistaken identity and another person later confessed to the murder. By that point, Quindt had been in prison for three and a half years. Williams argued that the statements by Quindt were nonetheless relevant for Williams’ state of mind.
The circuit court limited the 404(b) evidence. Williams was permitted to present statements that Quindt had been convicted of murder and that he learned how to fight in jail. It did not allow Williams to present statements about knowing gang-bangers, that he experienced violence while in jail, and that Quindt “got away” with murder because someone else took the rap for it or because of a technicality.
The jury found him guilty as charged and he was sentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. He appealed.
Raising Self-Defense. The use of force is a defense when the actor “believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by the other person on the present occasion.” HRS § 703-304(1). Using deadly force is limited to situations when the actor believes it’s necessary “to protect himself against death [or] serious bodily injury.” HRS § 703-304(2). In evaluating the self-defense claim, “evidence must be assessed from the standpoint of a reasonable person in the defendant’s position under the circumstances as the defendant subjectively believed them to be at the time he or she tried to defend himself or herself.” State v. Lubong, 77 Hawaii 429, 433, 886 P.2d 766, 770 (App. 1994).
Evidence of the First Aggressor . . . Apparently Needs to be Strong Evidence. Evidence of a person’s character or a trait of a person’s character is inadmissible to show that the person acted in conformity of that character or trait unless it is evidence “of a pertinent trait of character of the victim of the crime offered by an accused[.]” HRE Rule 404(a)(2). Williams argued on appeal that the circuit court erred in excluding his evidence about Quindt. The ICA, however, was not so sure.
According to the ICA, “it is questionable whether the proffered evidence was relevant to establishing that Quindt had a violent character under HRE Rule 404(a)(2).” There was nothing to substantiate Quindt’s purported (and hearsay) statements. This was significant for the ICA:
HRE Rule 404(a)(2) authorizes a defendant to introduce evidence of a victim’s pertinent character trait to prove action by the victim in conformity with that character trait. However, if the evidence offered to prove the victim’s character trait is weak, equivocal, or untrue, there is no reasonable basis to infer that the victim acted in conformity with the purported character trait.
In this case, there may have been statements about a murder, but it is undisputed that Quindt had been exonerated for the murder. According to the ICA, this shows that his statements about the murder did not show he had a violent character.
When did the Strength of Evidence Determine Relevancy? The ICA, without citing any direct authority, noted that evidence under HRE Rule 404(a)(2) has to be strong. If it is weak, equivocal, or untrue, then there is no basis to infer that the victim acted in conformity with the character trait. Is this true? Should the strength of the evidence deem it inadmissible? Why can’t the prosecution present evidence that the 404(a)(2) evidence is weak and leave it to the jury to assess?
Dodging 404(b). Evidence of “prior bad acts” are admissible to show something other than acting in conformity. HRE Rule 404(b). In this analysis, however, the probative value of the evidence cannot be substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. State v. Renon, 73 Haw. 23, 31-32, 828 P.2d 1266, 1270 (1992). The ICA did not fully examine this issue because it held that any errors here were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The ICA held that the sum and substance of the proffered evidence was presented to the jury.