Defendant’s Constitutional Right to Confront Witnesses Was Violated When Out-of-Court Comments by an Alleged Accomplice Were Allowed
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that admitting an alleged accomplice’s statements through the testimony of an investigating officer violated a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and Article I, Section 10, of the Ohio Constitution.
The opinion, authored by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, reversed a Sixth District Court of Appeals decision and sent the case back to the trial court for a new trial.
The case involved Thomas Ricks and Aaron Gipson, who were convicted of the March 2008 drug-related robbery and murder of Calvin Harper in Sandusky. Gipson, an associate of Harper’s in the drug trade, was interviewed by police in Canton, Michigan, shortly after the crime, based on information that Gipson may have been involved in a drug deal with Harper on the day of the murder.
At Ricks’s trial, Canton police officer Michael Steckel testified that he learned from the Sandusky police that two people had been involved in killing Harper: Gipson and a man called “Peanut.” Steckel and a Canton police sergeant spoke with Gipson, who described Peanut. Steckel testified that they drove to Strathmoor Street in Detroit so Gipson could identify Peanut’s house. Peanut happened to be in front of the residence at that time. Steckel said Gipson stated, “[T]hat’s Peanut,” and dropped down in the seat because he was afraid Peanut might see him.
Police identified Peanut as Thomas Ricks by calling the house Gipson had pointed out. Steckel then obtained a photograph of Ricks from another jurisdiction. Steckel testified that Gipson identified the man in the photo as Peanut, and the police in Sandusky then used the picture in a photo array they presented to witnesses. From the array, two witnesses identified Ricks as the person who had been with Gipson in Sandusky the night before the murder. Another witness identified Ricks as the person who was visiting Harper around the time of the murder.
At Ricks’s trial, the prosecutor did not call Gipson as a witness. Ricks’ attorneys repeatedly objected to Steckel’s testimony regarding Gipson’s identification of Ricks as Peanut. The trial judge instructed jurors that they shouldn’t consider Steckel’s testimony about what Gipson told him as proof that Ricks was, in fact, the person identified as Peanut, but should only consider his testimony as an explanation of the steps police took during their investigation.
Ricks was found guilty of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, and other offenses and sentenced to an aggregate prison term of life with no possibility of parole plus 26 years. He appealed to the Sixth District.
On the confrontation clause issue, the appellate court ruled that, given the trial judge’s instruction to the jury, the admission of Steckel’s testimony about what Gipson told him did not violate Ricks’ right under the Sixth Amendment to confront witnesses who provided evidence against him. The Supreme Court agreed to review the Sixth District’s ruling.
In today’s lead opinion, Justice Pfeifer wrote: “In this case, both the trial court and the court of appeals relied on [State v.] Blevins. In Blevins, the court held that ‘where statements are offered to explain an officer’s conduct while investigating a crime, such statements are not hearsay.’ Blevins recognized that the admission of out-of-court statements to explain officers’ conduct in an investigation carries with it the potential for abuse, and it thus established certain conditions that must be met before admitting such statements: ‘The conduct to be explained should be relevant, equivocal and contemporaneous with the statements. Additionally, such statements must meet the standard of Evid.R. 403(A). Blevins does not provide an exception to hearsay; it instead exemplifies a situation where testimony is offered for a reason other than for the truth of the matter asserted.” [citations omitted]
Justice Pfeifer continued: “In sum, in order for testimony offered to explain police conduct to be admissible as nonhearsay, the conduct to be explained should be relevant, equivocal, and contemporaneous with the statements; the probative value of statements must not be substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice; and the statements cannot connect the accused with the crime charged.”
“In this case, we find that the statements were unfairly prejudicial and that the nonhearsay reason given for introducing the statements was a pretext for the real reason: connecting Ricks to the crime,” Justice Pfeifer stated. “The out-of-court statements were exceptionally damaging in this case because the declarant was the other suspect in Harper’s murder and much of the evidence introduced by the state tied that suspect to the crime.”
“We conclude that both instances in Officer Steckel’s testimony where he related that Gipson had stated, ‘That’s Peanut,’ constituted hearsay because they were offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted rather than to explain police conduct. Since the statements were testimonial, the admission of the statements violated Ricks’s rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 10 of the Ohio Constitution. … In this case, we determine that there is a reasonable possibility that Steckel’s testimony that Gipson pointed out Ricks as ‘Peanut’ contributed to Ricks’s conviction.”
Justice Pfeifer’s lead opinion was joined by Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy, and William M. O’Neill.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and Judith L. French concurred in judgment and wrote separately to explain their reasoning in an opinion authored by Justice French.
In the concurrence, Justice French wrote: “I agree that Gipson’s out-of-court statements were inadmissible, but I do so based solely on Evid.R. 403. ... The fact that a limiting instruction can be given regarding certain relevant evidence, however, does not guarantee its admissibility. When the danger of unfair prejudice substantially outweighs the probative value of the evidence, it is not admissible.”
“In this case, the trial court’s limiting instruction did little to ameliorate the risk that the jury would misuse Gipson’s out-of-court statements as substantive evidence of guilt,” Justice French stated. “[I]t would have been possible to explain how the investigation led to Ricks without introducing Gipson’s exact statements or his behavior upon seeing Ricks. Nor was it necessary to inform the jury that it was Gipson—the alleged accomplice—who led police to Ricks. That information had little probative value and a high likelihood that the jury would misuse it as substantive evidence of Ricks’s guilt, even with the trial court’s limiting instruction. … Because the probative value of Gipson’s statements was substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice, I believe that the statements were inadmissible under Evid.R. 403.”
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