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Justices hear textbook case of errors in evidence

March 25, 2015

A man who stabbed his son-in-law and was convicted of battery with a deadly weapon argues trial court errors prevented him from presenting evidence that he acted in self-defense. The appellant claims the victim was the first to strike, whacking him with a 2-by-4 piece of lumber.

But justices of the Indiana Supreme Court also appeared to lay blame on defense counsel who had a chance to cross-examine the victim but did not. The trial judge in the case ruled the defense could not recall victim Darren Wiles to answer statements from witnesses who said Wiles told them he hit his father-in-law first.

Justices heard oral argument March 11 in Peter Griffith v. State of Indiana, 48S02-1501-CR-10, after a divided Court of Appeals panel affirmed Peter Griffith’s conviction for stabbing his son-in-law, Wiles, who lived across the street from him in Anderson.

“This case is about being denied the right to present a defense, denied the right to call witnesses, denied the right to impeach a witness’s credibility, and the jury not getting to hear the whole story,” argued Griffith’s appellate attorney, John T. Wilson.

Justice Mark Massa interjected that none of those issues would have been before the court had Griffith’s trial counsel cross-examined Wiles when he was on the stand. Wilson agreed.

Wilson said Griffith’s counsel tried to recall Wiles to address his inconsistent prior statements, and Madison Circuit Judge Thomas Newman Jr. ruled that doing so was forbidden. Wilson said that decision was based on a misinterpretation of Evidence Rule 613(b), which permits extrinsic evidence of prior inconsistent statements only if a witness is given an opportunity to explain or deny the statement.

Arguing to affirm Griffith’s conviction, Deputy Attorney General George Sherman said the trial court didn’t abuse its discretion in its interpretation of the rule. He also said Griffith’s conviction shouldn’t be set aside on evidentiary matters in light of the facts of the case, including that Griffith assaulted Wiles on Wiles’ land.

“It’s bedrock law that you can’t go on someone else’s property and then claim that you’re acting in self defense because you don’t have the right to be on that person’s property,” Sherman argued. “Any error that did occur is harmless, and this court should rescind transfer and reinstate the Court of Appeals opinion,” Sherman said.

Court of Appeals Judges Elaine Brown and Cale Bradford found no abuse of discretion in denying the admission of evidence Griffith wished to present. Judge Michael Barnes dissented and would have reversed Griffith’s conviction and remanded for a new trial. Barnes wrote that the trial court abused its discretion by insisting that Griffith had to ask Wiles about prior inconsistent statements during cross examination without exploring other avenues to allow introduction of the statements.

Barnes acknowledged that there would be sufficient evidence to sustain Griffith’s conviction even if the evidence had been admitted, but that excluding evidence was not harmless error.

Justice Brent Dickson picked up on Barnes’ dissent during oral arguments to challenge Sherman.

“We’ve been talking about the minutiae of the evidentiary rules and ways of keeping the jury from knowing stuff, but the whole idea of a fair trial embraces the idea the jury ought to know stuff,” Dickson said. Focusing on the rules of evidence rather than common law “seems to obfuscate the basic idea that people are entitled to a fair trial; they’re entitled to present their evidence,” he said.

“Why not let this evidence come in?” Dickson asked. “Why shut it off at all?”

Sherman replied that the trial court didn’t deny Griffith a fair trial, but rather explicitly explained to his lawyer how to get the evidence admitted – a procedure Sherman said Griffith’s trial counsel didn’t follow. He said Griffith had no constitutional right to disregard procedure or the rules of evidence.

aviva orenstein Orenstein

Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Aviva Orenstein said the Griffith case and oral arguments would be fitting for an evidence class because the issues appear to involve attorney error compounded by mistaken interpretations of rules from the bench.

“I cannot think of one strategic reason not to ask this question on cross-examination,” Orenstein said of statements from witnesses who said Wiles told them he struck Griffith first with a 2-by-4. At the same time, she believes the court misinterpreted the rule when it determined its hands were tied with regard to the admission of evidence of inconsistent prior statements.

The Griffith case also presents “a central question of how much do you want to let somebody not present evidence because of a technicality,” she said.

Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law professor Shawn Marie Boyne said the abuse of discretion standard traditionally gives evidentiary rulings great deference.

But Boyne also wondered what harm could come from admitting evidence, particularly since prosecutors could argue that police found no 2-by-4 during their investigation.

boyne-shawn-mug Boyne

“Simply because a defense attorney makes a mistake, are we going to hold that against the defendant?” Boyne, herself an experienced defense attorney, asked. “The reality of being a trial lawyer is that you’re not anticipating every avenue that may help you.”

“In the heat of battle, we’re not always thinking through the future consequences of evidentiary rulings,” she explained.

During oral arguments, some justices were skeptical about Griffith’s self-defense argument. Chief Justice Loretta Rush asked Wilson whether any error in this case may have been harmless given the facts that weighed against Griffith. Wilson replied that the error would not have been harmless because it precluded presentation of evidence buttressing a self-defense case.

Justice Robert Rucker appeared dismissive of the argument. “There was never a self-defense (jury) instruction requested and none was ever given,” he said.

“It seems to me that self defense was not really the focus at trial. That seems to me to be an evil-eyed appellate lawyer looking through the record and saying, ‘A-ha! We’ve got an issue for appeal.’”

Wilson replied that Griffith had testified about being hit by Wiles prior to the stabbing, but that rulings from the bench shut off further development of a self-defense case.

“Defense counsel maybe didn’t do as much as he should have,” Wilson said, “but I think that he did attempt to put forward a self-defense claim and these witnesses were critical to at least let the jury hear Darren Wiles had given two different statements about the sequence of events that happened.”•
 

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