Detective’s testimony on drug buy inadmissible, but harmless error

October 27, 2015

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled the admission of a detective’s statement regarding a controlled drug buy should not have been admitted because it resolved the issue of the defendant’s guilt, but that admission into evidence was a harmless error.

Wenzel Williams appealed his two Class B felony convictions of dealing in cocaine, which stemmed from controlled drug buys with a confidential informant. Madison County Drug Task Force Detective Keith Gaskill, acting undercover, witnessed the drug buys. At Williams’ trial, he said “there’s zero doubt in my mind that that was a transaction for cocaine,” when testifying about the first controlled drug buy.

Indiana Evidence Rule 704(a) expressly prohibits in criminal cases witness opinions concerning the ultimate issue of guilt. Because this statement did not merely “embrace” an ultimate issue by implying Williams’ guilt, but was an outright opinion of guilt, it is inadmissible under the rule, Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote. Its admission violated the jury’s right to determine the law and facts in criminal cases.
The state argued excluding Gaskill’s testimony would require overruling precedent allowing officers to testify to other facts like a defendant’s intoxication or identity, but the Supreme Court found those cases distinguishable because an opinion of intoxication or identity does not reach every element of the offense.  

“Detective Gaskill’s statement that ‘there’s zero doubt in my mind that that was a transaction for cocaine’ crossed the line into declaring Williams’s guilt. In the context of this drug-dealing offense, Detective Gaskill’s testimony, unlike testimony of intoxication and identity, does not just describe or imply some elements of the offense, but all of them – including mens rea,” Rush wrote.

But, the admission was a harmless error because the jury had ample evidence to independently convict Williams on both charges, so his convictions are affirmed.

The case is Wenzel Williams v. State of Indiana, 48S05-1507-CR-424.


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