Barred Evidence Didn’t Mar Rape Conviction

     WASHINGTON (CN) – There was no civil rights error in barring a man from using certain evidence when he was tried for rape, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
     “Respondent Calvin Jackson had a tumultuous decade-­long romantic relationship with Annette Heathmon,” according to the unsigned opinion. “In 1998, after several previous attempts to end the relation­ship, Heathmon relocated to a new apartment in North Las Vegas without telling respondent where she was moving. Respondent learned of Heathmon’s whereabouts, and on the night of October 21, 1998, he visited her apartment. What happened next was the focus of re­spondent’s trial.”
     Heathmon claimed that Jackson threatened to kill her and then raped her, hit her, stole a ring from her bedroom and dragged her out of the house toward his car by her neck and hair.
     Jackson allegedly fled when confronted by a witness. Police found that Heathmon’s injured neck and scalp supported her report to them.
     After police arrested Jackson and Nevada was readying for trial, Heathmon went into hiding to avoid testifying. She later told the court that Jackson’s associates had threatened to hurt her if she appeared in court.
     Jackson’s defense hinged on proving that Heathmon had made unsubstantiated reports in the past accusing him of rape.
     “Although the trial court gave the defense wide latitude to cross-­examine Heathmon about those prior incidents, it refused to admit the police reports or to allow the defense to call as witnesses the officers involved,” the ruling states. “The jury found respondent guilty, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.”
     Later the Nevada Supreme Court found that Jackson could not claim that the barred evidence violated his federal constitutional right to present a complete defense.
     A federal judge likewise denied Jackson relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, but a divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed.
     “The major­ity held that extrinsic evidence of Heathmon’s prior alle­gations was critical to respondent’s defense, that the exclusion of that evidence violated respondent’s constitu­tional right to present a defense, and that the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision to the contrary was an unrea­sonable application of this court’s precedents,” the Supreme Court explained. Although it acknowledged that the state court had ruled that the evidence was inadmissible as a matter of state law, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the impact of the state’s rules of evidence on the defense ‘was disproportionate to the state’s interest in … exclusion.’ Finding that the trial court’s erroneous evi­dentiary ruling was not harmless, the Ninth Circuit ordered the sate either to retry or to re­lease respondent.”
     The Supreme Court summarily reversed Monday.
     “Contrary to the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion, the state Supreme Court’s application of our clearly established precedents was reasonable,” the ruling states. “The start­ing point in the state court’s analysis was a state statute that generally precludes the admission of extrinsic evi­dence of ‘[s]pecific instances of the conduct of a witness, for the purpose of attacking or supporting the witness’ credibility, other than conviction of crime.’ … These are ‘good rea­son[s]’ for limiting the use of extrinsic evidence, and the Nevada statute is akin to the widely accepted rule of evidence law that generally precludes the admission of evidence of specific instances of a witness’ conduct to prove the witness’ char­acter for untruthfulness. The constitutional propriety of this rule cannot be seriously disputed.”
     Though Nevada precedent grants exceptions to the prohibition in sex assault cases, the Supreme Court found that Jackson did not qualify because he failed to follow the procedure of filing a written notice.
     “No decision of this court clearly establishes that this notice requirement is unconstitutional,” the ruling states.
     The justices also noted that Jackson’s “proffered evidence had little impeachment value because at most it showed simply that the victim’s reports could not be corroborated.”
     “The admission of extrinsic evidence of specific instances of a witness’ conduct to impeach the witness’ credibility may confuse the jury, unfairly embar­rass the victim, surprise the prosecution, and unduly prolong the trial,” they added.

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