Denzel Heyward’s convictions for attempted murder, armed robbery, and possession of a weapon during a crime of violence were reversed this month because the prosecutor in his trial insisted on telling the jury about unrelated domestic violence allegations against him.
Heyward was acquitted of a murder charge, although the jurors convicted him on the remaining charges listed above and he was sentenced to 65 years in prison.
Why are domestic violence allegations not admissible in an unrelated murder trial? Why did the prosecutor insist that they were, risking a reversal by the Supreme Court in what must have been a long, hard fought murder case?
The rules of evidence matter – understanding the circumstances when certain types of evidence are admissible or inadmissible allows your attorney to ensure that a trial is fair and the jurors only hear competent evidence.
But what happens when prosecutors don’t play by the rules?
Heyward was on trial for murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, and possession of a firearm during a violent crime.
The state alleged that Rivers, the mother of Heyward’s child, drove Heyward and a codefendant to a house where they attempted to rob two men. After a fight, one of the men was shot and later died at the hospital.
Throughout the trial, the prosecutor tried to tell the jurors that Heyward had been accused of domestic violence against Rivers in the past, although it had nothing to do with the murder allegations and Heyward was not convicted of domestic violence.
At first, they argued that it would help the jurors understand the relationship between Heyward and Rivers and that the “allegations of domestic violence would not cause the jury to assume Heyward committed murder.” The trial court disagreed, finding (obviously) that the only purpose of the testimony was to prove Heyward’s bad character and that he was more likely to commit a murder because of the prior allegations of domestic violence.
Later in the trial, the prosecutor continued arguing that they should be permitted to talk about the prior abuse allegations, and the Court ended up allowing it, holding that the defense had “opened the door” to the testimony.
The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed Heyward’s convictions because 1) the defense did not open the door to the prior abuse allegations; and 2) the only purpose of the testimony was to show Heyward’s bad character and propensity to commit a crime like murder.
If testimony or evidence is not admissible at trial, it can become admissible if the defense mentions it. The defense (or prosecution) cannot argue that evidence is inadmissible, but then use parts of that evidence without giving the other side the opportunity to reply.
On cross-examination, the defense asked Rivers’ mother about a suicide attempt by Rivers, Rivers’ mental health issues, and whether Rivers’ had accused her stepfather of sexually molesting her.
In response, the prosecutor asked Rivers’ mother if Heyward had ever committed domestic violence against Rivers – the exact questions that the Court had ruled inadmissible before. Now, however, the trial court agreed with the prosecutor that the defense had “opened the door” to the testimony.
The Supreme Court disagreed – none of the questions asked by the defense related to physical abuse by Heyward against Rivers (suicide attempts, mental health issues, and sexual abuse by someone else), and the prosecution was still seeking to introduce the evidence solely to persuade the jurors that Heyward was more likely to commit murder because he had committed domestic violence in the past…
Despite rampant cheating by prosecutors, the U.S. prides itself on having a fair and unbiased criminal justice system.
One aspect of this is ensuring that a person is convicted solely on the evidence related to the crime they are charged with – “prior bad acts” are never admissible to prove that a person is more likely to commit the current crime.
When jurors hear that a person may have committed domestic violence in the past, they then assume that the defendant is a violent person who is more likely to have committed a murder in the present – it’s unfair. “Propensity evidence” in a criminal trial is evidence that would tend to cause jurors to convict on an improper basis, and this is why it is not admissible at trial.
Rule 404 of the SC Rules of Evidence says when character evidence is admissible and when it is not admissible. In general, character evidence “is not admissible for the purpose of proving action in conformity therewith on a particular occasion.”
There are some exceptions:
Rule 404(b) prohibits the use of prior bad acts to prove a current, unrelated crime:
Evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith.
Although it does provide exceptions to show motive, identity, the existence of a common scheme or plan, the absence of mistake or accident, or intent, none of these exceptions applied in Heyward’s case.
The prosecutor knew that the evidence was inadmissible. The prosecutor also knew that the evidence would make it more likely that the jurors would convict on an improper basis – do you think that a person who violently beats his romantic partner is more or less likely to commit a violent crime like murder?
The obvious answer is more likely, and yet it has nothing to do with the murder for which Heyward was on trial.
The prosecutor also knew that the defense did not open the door to the evidence – they were using any excuse they could think of to get the improper evidence before the jury so the jurors would be more likely to convict Heyward.
Why? The prosecutor, like many prosecutors in SC, did not care if the trial was fair. They did not care if they followed the rules. They only cared about getting a conviction – even if it meant risking having a conviction overturned by the appellate courts.
They probably assumed the appellate courts would not overturn the conviction – in many cases, our Supreme Court and Court of Appeals will bend over backwards to not overturn a conviction, often finding that a prosecutor’s hijinks and a trial court’s bad rulings are “harmless error” that did not affect the outcome.
If you have been charged with a serious crime in Myrtle Beach, SC, you need to get an experienced criminal defense lawyer – an attorney with trial experience who understands the rules of evidence and how to connect with a jury – on your side as soon as possible.