Sunday, September 4, 2011

Citizens United


Last month, a unanimous Georgia Supreme Court reversed the murder conviction of a teenage girl in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit because prosecutors improperly brought in evidence designed to show the girl was under “satanic influences.”  The Court held that evidence that Courtney Boring had what prosecutors called a “gothic lifestyle” was irrelevant to whether she shot her mother in the head in 2006. 

This case provides a pretty clear illustration of how this state treats character evidence regarding a defendant.  The general rule is that the defendant’s character may not be put in evidence unless he or she chooses to put it in issue.  In Georgia, if evidence places an accused’s character in issue, it is inadmissible unless it is relevant to some other issue in the case.  In other words, the character evidence must have a relevant link to another important issue in the case that is being contested by the parties in order for it to be admissible.  The evidence cannot be introduced to simply impugn the character of the defendant. 

In this murder case, the Court pointed out that prosecutors showed the jury photos of the defendant with dyed black hair and dark make-up, a document bearing the words of a “curse”, and several different inscriptions of song lyrics and other quotations containing themes of anguish, atheism, and violence.  The prosecutor’s theory of the case was that Courtney was angry at her mother for restricting her visits with her boyfriend. 

Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote that the evidence of the young woman’s character was so irrelevant and prejudicial as to warrant reversal, especially given the state’s case was circumstantial.  While the Georgia Supreme Court has on occasion allowed the admission of evidence regarding unpopular beliefs, organizations etc., this has only been done when the evidence had a direct link to the defendant’s alleged motive or intent or the defendant’s identity. 

An example of this type of permissible evidence would be when an alleged bank robber is identified as wearing a satanic mask at the scene of the crime.  If the same satanic mask id found at the defendant’s apartment during a subsequent search, the mask can be introduced in evidence to show that the defendant is the armed robber. 

Hunstein said that there was no testimony in this case linking the evidence in question to satanism or gothic beliefs.  She said that the link came in only during the opening statement and closing argument of the prosecutor, which was itself improper. 

This is a very good ruling that highlights a very good rule of law in criminal cases.  While I do not necessarily approve of a “gothic lifestyle” and am disturbed by satanic activity, I should not be able to judge whether or not someone is guilty of a crime based on the defendant’s unsavory beliefs or lifestyle.  This rule protects unpopular people from being judged on who they are as opposed to what they may have done.  Criminal trials are about the actions of the defendant. 

However, Courtney Boring is not out of the woods just yet.  Even though her conviction has been reversed, the Georgia Supreme Court held that she can be retried on the case.  According to the Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney, this is exactly what they intend to do. 

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