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United States v. Thomas

United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

September 10, 2002, Argued ; February 25, 2003, Decided

No. 02-1487

Reporter

321 F.3d 627 *; 2003 U.S. App. LEXIS 3413 **; 60 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. (Callaghan) 1059

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. ROBERT THOMAS, Defendant-Appellant.

Prior History:  [**1]  Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 01 CR 203-1. Charles R. Norgle, Sr., Judge.

Disposition: Conviction vacated; case remanded.

Case Summary

Procedural Posture

Defendant, who was convicted by a jury of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, challenged a decision entered by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division .

Overview

Prior to trial, defendant moved to have a photograph taken of one of his tattoos ruled inadmissible. The tattoo was of two revolvers crossed, with blood dripping around them and words above them. After defendant, the United States, agreed to redact the blood and words from the photograph, leaving just the images of the guns, the district court ruled that the photograph was admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 403. The district court ruled the photo admissible because it went toward showing defendant's awareness of weapons, an absence of mistake, and his opinion of guns. The reviewing court failed to see how the redacted photo of the tattoo was admitted for any purpose other than to establish defendant's propensity to possess guns. Defendant also moved before trial to have two prior arrests for gun possession ruled inadmissible. The court reviewed the admissibility under Fed. R. Evid. 404(b). The court found that the minimal probative value relating to defendant's motive to hide the gun was outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice that the introduction of the convictions presented. The court held it was not harmless error to admit the photograph or the other two prior convictions.

Outcome

The court vacated defendant's convictions and remanded the case to the district court.

LexisNexis® Headnotes

Evidence > Relevance > Exclusion of Relevant Evidence > Confusion, Prejudice & Waste of Time

Criminal Law & Procedure > ... > Standards of Review > Abuse of Discretion > Evidence

HN1  Confusion, Prejudice & Waste of Time

The appellate court reviews evidentiary decisions for an abuse of discretion. Fed. R. Evid. 403 requires district courts to exclude evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury. When considering the prejudicial nature of evidence under Fed. R. Evid. 403, the court has noted that most relevant evidence is, by its very nature, prejudicial, that evidence must be unfairly prejudicial to be excluded. Evidence is unfairly prejudicial if it will induce the jury to decide the case on an improper basis, commonly an emotional one, rather than on the evidence presented. The balancing of probative value and prejudice is a highly discretionary assessment, and we accord the district court's decision great deference, only disturbing it if no reasonable person could agree with the ruling.

Evidence > Relevance > Exclusion of Relevant Evidence > Confusion, Prejudice & Waste of Time

HN2  Confusion, Prejudice & Waste of Time

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has found tattoos admissible when the tattoo was used to identify the defendant, or to show the defendant's membership in a conspiracy composed of gang members. However, the court has found tattoos inadmissible when they are only admitted to show membership in a gang, because the possibility that a jury will attach a propensity for committing crimes to defendants who are affiliated with gangs or that a jury's negative feelings toward gangs will influence its verdict.

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