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Court rules on first impression 'alibi' witness issue

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A trial court erred in excluding testimony of a defendant’s witnesses on the ground they were alibi witnesses, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today in an issue of first impression. Their testimony that the defendant wasn’t at the crime scene was actually a rebuttal of the prosecution’s argument the defendant was present.

In Deborah Edwards v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-0911-CR-1093, Deborah Edwards appealed Marion Superior Judge James B. Osborn’s decision to exclude her two witnesses in her criminal recklessness case – Rachel Edwards and Robert Bell – because they were alibi witnesses and she hadn’t filed an alibi notice. Rachel Edwards and Bell were co-defendants on the charge. Deborah Edwards was convicted of the Class D felony.

Deborah Edwards wanted the two to testify that she was not present on the day of the attack, which wouldn’t make them alibi witnesses because they couldn’t testify as to where she was at the time of the crime. Those who want to offer an alibi defense must file a written statement with his or her intention to offer the defense and include specific information on the exact place where the defendant claims to have been on the date in question.

No Indiana court has decided whether an eyewitness to a crime who indicates only that a person was not at the scene of the crime is an alibi witness, noted Judge Melissa May. The appellate judges relied on State v. Volpone, 376 A.2d 199, 202 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1977), and Kansas v. Deffebaugh, 89 P.3d 582, 588 (Kan. 2004), to rule that the trial court erred in excluding the witnesses’ testimony.

“The Volpone court accurately characterizes testimony a defendant was not at a crime scene as rebuttal to the prosecution’s contention the defendant was at the crime scene, which testimony, unlike an alibi claim, requires no further investigation by the prosecution,” wrote Judge May. “We find that characterization consistent with both the dictionary definition of 'alibi' and the language of our alibi statute.”

Evidence of a defendant’s absence from a crime scene isn’t an “alibi” defense, but is a rebuttal of the prosecution’s contention a defendant was at the scene and capable of committing the crime, the judge continued.

The state argued the exclusion was harmless, but there wasn’t overwhelming evidence of Edwards’ presence and involvement in the crime. Three witnesses didn’t identify Edwards as the person holding the bat and beating the victim as the state argued, and Edwards’ mug shot from the day of the attack doesn’t match a witness’ description.

The case is remanded for a new trial.
 

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