Error in admitting drug conviction was harmless, 7th Circuit rules

Although a witness’s changed testimony did not open the door wide enough to allow the introduction of a defendant’s prior drug record, the prosecution’s case was still substantial without the improper evidence so the defendant’s federal conviction will stand.

Evansville resident Kenneth Schmitt appealed his conviction and sentence for possessing a firearm while being a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1). In part, he argued the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana erred in allowing the state to admit his prior conviction for possession of methamphetamine into evidence.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed the District Court did commit an error but found it was harmless in United States of America v. Kenneth Schmitt, 13-2894. The court ruled the government’s case would not have been significantly less persuasive if the conviction had been excluded.

Linking Schmitt to the drugs police found in the home he shared with his girlfriend was key to the government’s contention that the defendant owned the AK-15 semi-automatic assault rifle also found in the house. The prosecution argued Schmitt had the weapon because he was dealing drugs.

However during the trial, Jason Wyatt, the government’s witness, testified the drugs at the residence were his.

Defense counsel recalled Wyatt to the stand and got him to admit the meth as well as the marijuana and pills all belonged to him. The government seized on the testimony and argued Wyatt’s statements “opened the door” to admitting testimony that Schmitt previously had pleaded guilty to possession and to admitting Schmitt's conviction record.

The 7th Circuit pointed out the defense did not open the door to evidence of who possessed the meth. The court ruled that conviction was not relevant and should have been redacted from the record.

Still, the error was harmless.

“But the prosecution’s case would not have been ‘significantly less persuasive had the improper evidence been excluded,’” Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote for the panel. “There was already ample evidence before the jury to suggest that Schmitt was a drug dealer, which could lead a reasonable juror to infer that he had a reason to have a firearm.”

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