Law School Case Brief
United States v. Varoudakis - 233 F.3d 113 (1st Cir. 2000)
Fed. R. Evid. 404(b) provides that evidence of a defendant's prior bad acts may not be admitted to prove his criminal character or propensity to commit crimes of the sort for which he is on trial. To admit evidence of prior bad acts, a trial court must find that the evidence passes two tests. First, the evidence must have "special relevance" to an issue in the case such as intent or knowledge, and must not include bad character or propensity as a necessary link in the inferential chain. Second, under Fed. R. Evid. 403, evidence that is specially relevant may still be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.
The government alleged that defendant George Varoudakis, charged with arson and conspiracy to commit arson in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 844(i) and 18 U.S.C. § 371, hired an acquaintance to burn down his failing restaurant, Destinations, in order to collect insurance proceeds. Following his conviction, Varoudakis argues on appeal that the district court abused its discretion by admitting evidence of a prior bad act, namely, testimony by Varoudakis's long-time girlfriend and co-conspirator in the Destinations arson, Cheryl Britt, that she saw Varoudakis set fire to his leased car 16 months before the Destinations fire.
Did the district court err in admitting the evidence of prior bad acts?
The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit concluded that the car fire evidence was specially relevant to Varoudakis’ relationship with his long-time girlfriend because it showed that defendant trusted her so much that he was willing to commit a crime in her presence. However, the probative value of the car fire evidence was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice at the time the district court admitted it. Further, admission of the evidence was not harmless because the government would not have had an opportunity to show an independent, neutral source enhancing the girlfriend’s credibility.
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