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7th Circuit cautions bare-bones recitation of Rule 403 insufficient

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A District Court’s failure to review evidence and provide a considered analysis for admitting that evidence drew an admonishment – but no reversal - from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 7th Circuit affirmed Christopher Eads’s conviction and 40-year sentence for distributing child pornography, possessing child pornography and tampering with a witness in United States of America v. Christopher Eads, 12-2466.

Prior to his trial, Eads, representing himself, agreed to stipulate that the images and videos found in his possession depicted unlawful child pornography.

When the government prepared to show those images to the jury, however, Eads objected. He argued that the government had no need to present the photos and short video because of the stipulation. Eads stated that showing the images would be unreasonably prejudicial, citing Federal Rule of Evidence 403.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division, overruled.

On appeal, Eads asserted the district court erred because it did not examine the pictures and videos itself before admitting them into evidence. He also argued that the District Court should have given a more robust explanation of how it balanced the factors under Rule 403 in deciding to admit the images.

The 7th Circuit noted there is some uncertainty as to whether the lower court did review the actual photos and videos. Still, it reiterated its past advice that the “safest course,” especially given the highly inflammatory nature of this type of evidence, is for the District Court to review the contested evidence itself to determine if the potential prejudicial impact is too great.

In regards to Rule 403, the 7th Circuit agreed with Eads.

The district court responded to Eads objections during trial, saying the photos were relevant to the government proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. This caused the 7th Circuit to caution the lower court against a “pro-forma recitation of the Rule 403.” Instead, the District Court should have carefully analyzed the prejudicial effect of the evidence and offered a detailed explanation of how it balanced the factors under Rule 403.

Still, the 7th Circuit found the admission of the images was a harmless error. The evidence against Eads was overwhelming and showing the pictures to the jury did not change the outcome of the trial.
 

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