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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Sanders - 964 F.2d 295 (4th Cir. 1992)


Admission of evidence of a similar offense often does little to impeach the credibility of a testifying defendant while undoubtedly prejudicing him. The jury, despite limiting instructions, can hardly avoid drawing the inference that the past conviction suggests some probability that defendant committed the similar offense for which he is currently charged. The generally accepted view, therefore, is that evidence of similar offenses for impeachment purposes under Fed. R. Evid. 609 should be admitted sparingly if at all.


On March 6, 1990, Sanders and Ricky Alston, both inmates at Lorton Reformatory, were indicted for assault with intent to commit murder and possession of a knife or shank. The indictment charged Sanders and Alston with assaulting fellow inmate Bobby Jenkins with a shank on April 7, 1989. Before trial, Sanders filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence of his prior convictions. Although the district court granted this motion in part by prohibiting the government from questioning Sanders about a stabbing for which he was acquitted and an armed robbery for which his conviction was reversed, the court declined to preclude the government from cross-examining Sanders about his prior assault and contraband possession convictions. The court ruled that the assault and contraband convictions were admissible. After hearing the evidence, the jury acquitted Alston on the assault count and convicted Sanders of possession of a shank. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the assault count against Sanders, however. The district court accordingly declared a mistrial as to that count and set it for re-trial. Before his second trial, Sanders renewed his motion in limine to exclude his previous convictions for assault and possession of contraband. The district court denied the renewed motion. 


Are the defendant's prior convictions inadmissible?




With respect to defendant's assault conviction, court found reversible error and held defendant's prior convictions inadmissible under FRE 609(a) 404(b) because such evidence had little bearing on defendant's propensity to testify truthfully, was extremely prejudicial since it involved exact type of conduct on trial, and exemplified evidence proving only criminal disposition. Thus, court could not say with fair assurance that assault judgment was not substantially swayed by erroneous admission of obviously damaging evidence. Court affirmed defendant's shank possession conviction because such error was harmless.

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