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COA: Admission of prior convictions fundamental error

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The Indiana Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for a sex offender convicted of failing to register while having a prior conviction. The court ruled the evidence regarding his prior convictions for failing to register shouldn’t have been admitted at trial.

In David Sasser v. State of Indiana, No. 79A04-1006-CR-457, David Sasser’s conviction hinged on the credibility of the testimony of Sasser and Tippecanoe Sheriff’s Department detective Greg Haltom.

When Sasser relocated to Indiana, he went to the sheriff’s department to register as a convicted sex offender, but Haltom said he didn’t have to register because the 10-year registration period had expired. After a later encounter with a West Lafayette police officer, Sasser learned that he should register. He immediately went to the sheriff’s department to register, but the computer system was down. He was given Haltom’s phone number and told to call the next morning. Sasser tried to call him several times and left a voicemail, but Haltom never returned the call. Haltom said he didn’t recall Sasser coming into the office the second time or receiving a voicemail. He also claimed he wouldn’t have sent someone home because the computers were down.

Once he was charged with failing to register as a Class D felony, Sasser went to the sheriff’s department and officially registered. He was later charged with Class C felony failure to register as a convicted sex offender while having a prior conviction and convicted on both counts. The trial court merged the convictions into the Class C felony conviction and sentenced him to six years in prison.

At issue is the admission of evidence of Sasser’s prior convictions. Although he didn’t object at trial, the Court of Appeals found the admission to be a fundamental error. While cross-examining Haltom, the defense counsel asked him about the dates in which Sasser had previously registered “And what it also indicates is when he was aware he had to register, he did?”

The trial court found the defense opened the door to evidence about Sasser’s prior convictions for failure to register and the defense didn’t object. The judges found that question didn’t open the door to evidence of Sasser’s prior convictions and the attorney was attempting to clarify the information that was already admitted as part of Exhibit 6.

“But given the fact that this case turned solely on the credibility of the witnesses, we can only conclude that admission of evidence regarding Sasser’s prior convictions for the very crime he was charged with herein was a proverbial poison pill that would have made it nearly impossible for the jury to listen to his version of events objectively and prevented him from receiving a fair trial,” wrote Judge John Baker.

The judges remanded for a new trial.

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