The term unfair prejudice, as to a criminal defendant, speaks to the capacity of some concededly relevant evidence to lure the factfinder into declaring guilt on a ground different from proof specific to the offense charged. Unfair prejudice within its context means an undue tendency to suggest decision on an improper basis, commonly, though not necessarily, an emotional one.
In 1993, petitioner, Old Chief, was arrested after a fracas involving at least one gunshot. The ensuing federal charges included not only assault with a dangerous weapon and using a firearm in relation to a crime of violence but violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), a statute which makes it unlawful for anyone who has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year to possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm. The earlier crime charged in the indictment against Old Chief was assault causing serious bodily injury, a crime punishable by imprisonment of more than one year. Before trial, defendant moved for an order prohibiting the government from mentioning or offering into evidence any testimony regarding his prior criminal conviction for assault causing serious bodily injury, except to state that he had been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment exceeding one year. The defendant also offered to stipulate that he had been convicted of such a crime. The government refused the offered stipulation, and the district court ruled that the government was not required to so stipulate. The government introduced at trial, over defendant's objection, the order of judgment and commitment for defendant's prior conviction. The jury found defendant guilty on all counts, and the appellate court affirmed. On certiorari review, the defendant argued that his offer to stipulate rendered the prior conviction inadmissible under Fed. R. Evid. 403.
Did the defendant’s offer to stipulate render the prior conviction inadmissible under Fed. R. Evid. 403?
The Court held that in general, if a defendant to a 922(g)(1) charge offers to concede the fact of a prior qualifying conviction, then under Rule 403, it is an abuse of discretion for the trial judge, in balancing probative value against the danger of unfair prejudice, to spurn the defendant's offer and to admit the full record of the prior judgment of conviction, where the name and nature of the prior offense raise the risk of a verdict tainted by improper considerations, and the purpose for the government's introduction of such evidence is solely to prove the element of prior conviction. In so doing, the Court ruled that the District Court had abused its discretion under Rule 403 in the case at hand.