Interesting Case Involving Evidence of Defendant's and Witness's Being Muslims:

Here's an excerpt from last week's State v. Rankin (N.C. App.) (some paragraph breaks added):

[D]efendant argues that the trial court erred by allowing the State to present evidence identifying defendant and a witness as Muslim. This argument is without merit.

The State presented recordings of certain phone calls made by defendant to Chantay Brown, a woman with whom he had been involved in the past. Brown's initial testimony provided defendant with an alibi for the time of the murder; however, she later retracted that statement and testified that defendant asked her via calls and letters to provide him with an alibi for the time of the crime.

Defendant argues that this unfairly prejudiced the jury against him, as the jury could well have anti-Muslim beliefs, and that any probative value of the evidence was outweighed by its prejudicial effect. This argument is based on Rule 403 of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence ...[:] “[a]lthough relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice[.]” [This is a common provision, and tracks the Federal Rules of Evidence. -EV]

Whether to exclude evidence pursuant to Rule 403 is a matter left to the sound discretion of the trial court. A ruling by the trial court will be reversed for an abuse of discretion only upon a showing that the ruling was so arbitrary that it could not have been the result of a reasoned decision....

[R]elevant evidence is “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” Evidence that a defendant attempted to procure a false alibi from a witness is certainly relevant. The question, then, is whether the prejudicial effect of this information outweighed its relevance.

Defendant simply states that the jury probably had an anti-Islamic bias. Aside from the fact that a Bible was in the jury room, however, defendant presents no evidence to support this statement. Further, Brown testified that, per her religious beliefs, when defendant asked her to provide an alibi for him, she felt obligated to do so, which is why she initially testified that he had been with her at the time of the murder.

When the State asked her during voir dire whether her religious beliefs and the fact that defendant was of the same faith affected the way she reacted to defendant's request, she testified: “You're supposed to help them, assist them, if you can. You're supposed to help him. That's why I did agree to help him.” After listening to Brown's testimony and recordings of the phone calls between her and defendant out of the jury's presence, the trial court concluded that “defendant was using his religion as a mechanism to try to get this witness to testify in his behalf, and actually commit perjury; that it is relevant for that purpose, and it is not being offeredas a means to showing credibility[.]”

The court then went through the calls again and told the State which portions of each call could be played for the jury, a process which eliminated significant portions of each call that the court considered “just discussions of faith and nothing to do with the trying to influence her.”

Given the care with which the trial court handled this evidence, and given the fact that defendant cannot show that, without this evidence, a different result would likely have been reached, this assignment of error is overruled.