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COA: Admission of prior bad acts was a harmless error

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The Indiana Court of Appeals found that evidence of a defendant’s prior bad acts was not properly admitted at his trial for theft of gasoline, but affirmed his conviction because the admission was a harmless error.

Nathaniel Baker was convicted of Class D felony theft for stealing 45 gallons of gasoline belonging to David Stephan. He and two other men were with him when the gasoline was stolen. Baker argued when he was charged that he was with his fiancée at the time in question.

In appealing his conviction, Baker argued that the trial court improperly allowed testimony of cohort J.L. that this was not the first time the two had stolen gasoline. He claimed the evidence was introduced only to show he had a propensity to steal gas; the state claimed it was introduced to show Baker’s knowledge, identity and intent.

The COA concluded in Nathaniel Baker v. State of Indiana, 35A05-1210-CR-543, that evidence of Baker’s prior bad acts was not properly admitted under the knowledge, identity or intent exceptions of Evidence Rule 404(b). Baker did not place his intent or knowledge into issue and there’s no evidence this is a “signature” crime of Baker.

But the judges were convinced that there is no substantial likelihood that the questioned evidence contributed to Baker’s conviction in light of the testimony by his co-conspirators about their actions and the jury’s apparent determination that their testimony was more credible than Baker’s fiancée’s testimony, Judge Cale Bradford wrote. As such, the erroneous admission of the prior bad acts evidence was harmless.

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