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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.

Tareeq (www):
Given that the witness actually stated that her religion was, in her opinion, the reason the appellant asked her to give false testimony, this is a pretty simple 400 etc. weigh-in under North Carolina or Federal rules.

If the appellant really felt the jury had an anti-Islamic bias, he should have used the witness's religion to attack her credibility during closing arguments.
7.24.2008 6:50pm
procrastinating clerk (mail):
Yeah, except I don't think that strategy works so well when the defendant is of the same faith.
7.24.2008 7:04pm
theobromophile (www):
Sensible ruling - agree with Tareeq. (There is also the "narrative integrity," which could potentially apply here: it makes more sense for the witness to explain why she initially agreed to lie for him, than to merely change her testimony and hope to be found credible.) I suspect that cross-examination could have been helpful to attempt to undermine her credibility.

If this had come out the other way, it would appear as if a defendant could attempt to persuade people to lie for him, and, if able to find a politically-sensitive basis for some of his actions (or those of the would-be-witnesses), exclude them from the courtroom.
7.24.2008 7:07pm
bosspup:
That seemed pretty straightforward except for the idea that having someone make up a fake alibi for you is probative as to your guilt of the underlying crime. I see in the case itself a nice string cite of 3-4 cases saying that such testimony is probative, but I'm not sure I totally believe it as a matter of logic.

It's a question of differential probabilities, right? Regardless of whether I did a crime or not, I would be scared of conviction. If I thought that getting someone to corroborate would help me get off, I might well do it. I am not sure that the probability of me suborning (sp.) perjury is higher based on whether I did the crime or not. I definitely thinks it's a closer call than both the court and EV make it out to be.
7.24.2008 9:34pm
ReaderY:
Even under the strongest conceivable fundamental-rights interpretation of the Fair Exercise Clause, the state would have a compelling interest in preventing perjury, witness-tampering, etc., not to mention the underlying felony. This isn't like cases involving sacrificing an animal for religious rites, wearing a head covering in school, taking a day off for a religious holiday, attaching a mezzuza to a door, or similar.

North Carolina introduced Federal-style rules of evidence in the 1980s.
7.25.2008 12:28am
ReaderY:
Err...Free Exercise Clause
7.25.2008 4:02am
FlimFlamSam:
Ok, I know that one isn't supposed to take shots at the Muslim religion in polite company, but what kind of kooky religion would require that its followers lie for each other to cover up a murder?
7.25.2008 7:58am
C Miller (mail) (www):
I've written a few posts that have been very critical of the admission of religious evidence in trials (here and here).

That said, this is one of the few situations where I would say that the use of religious evidence was likely proper. The state was using this evidence to show why Brown initially claimed that the defendant had been with her at the time of the murder.

Federal Rule of Evidence 610 states that "[e]vidence of the beliefs or opinions of a witness on matters of religion is not admissible for the purpose of showing that by reason of their nature the witness' credibility is impaired or enhanced." But here, the state wasn't arging that Muslims are generally liars.

Instead, the state was using the shared religion of Brown and the defendant to prove that she had a reason to initially provide a false alibi. And the Advisory Committee's Note to Rule 610 states that "[w]hile the rule forecloses inquiry into the religious beliefs or opinions of a witness for the purpose of showing that his character for truthfulness is affected by their nature, an inquiry for the purpose of showing interest or bias because of them is not within the prohibition."

The evidence was thus admissible under Rule 610, and, I would argue, presumptively admissible under Rule 403 based on this language from the Advisory Committee.
7.25.2008 8:29am