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Only relevant evidence is admissible at trial. Evid. Code, § 350. Under Evid. Code, § 210, relevant evidence is evidence having any tendency in reason to prove or disprove any disputed fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action. A trial court has considerable discretion in determining the relevance of evidence. Similarly, the court has broad discretion under Evid. Code, § 352, to exclude even relevant evidence if it determines the probative value of the evidence is substantially outweighed by its possible prejudicial effects. An appellate court reviews a court's rulings regarding relevancy and admissibility under § 352 for abuse of discretion. The appellate court will not reverse a court's ruling on such matters unless it is shown the trial court exercised its discretion in an arbitrary, capricious, or patently absurd manner that resulted in a manifest miscarriage of justice.
In 2001, a jury convicted defendant Justin James Merriman of the 1992 first degree murder of Katrina Montgomery (Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a)), and found true the special circumstance allegations that the murder was committed while defendant was engaged in the commission of rape and oral copulation (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(17)(C), (F)), and the allegation that Merriman personally used a deadly weapon (former § 12022, subd. (b)). The jury also convicted Merriman of numerous noncapital crimes that occurred subsequent to the murder, including multiple counts of sexual assault and witness dissuasion. After a penalty phase trial, the jury returned a verdict of death. Merriman moved for new trial (§ 1181), and for modification of his sentence to life without the possibility of parole (§ 190.4, subd. (e)). The trial court denied the motions and sentenced him to death. Merriman’s appeal is automatic.
Did the trial court err in refusing to sever trial on a capital murder count from trial on the rest of the charges against Merriman?
The court held that the trial court properly refused to sever trial on a capital murder count from trial on the rest of the charges against Merriman, as he failed to make a clear showing of prejudice. Merriman failed to show the introduction of a hearsay statement describing a prior uncharged and unsuccessful attempt to sexually assault the murder victim, even if erroneous, was so prejudicial as to render his trial unfair. Although juror misconduct occurred during the guilt phase because a juror had a conversation with a sheriff's deputy about the case, Merriman was not entitled to relief because the presumption of prejudice arising from the misconduct had been rebutted. The court also found that the evidence the jury was permitted to consider during the penalty phase corresponded to statutorily permissible aggravating factors because it was highly relevant to the circumstances surrounding the capital offense.