State v. Miranda

No. 33958-1-III, 2017 Wash. App. LEXIS 2917 (Ct. App. Dec. 21, 2017)



Autopsy photos can be relevant to help the jury understand a medical examiner's testimony.  Such photos may also help show the extent of a victim's injuries, or tend to establish elements of the offense such as intent, premeditation, or knowledge. 


Francisco Miranda appealed his convictions for three counts of aggravated first degree murder. Mr. Miranda made a number of statements that were used against him at trial. While Mr. Miranda's statements to law enforcement were merely inconsistent, as opposed to directly incriminating, the same was not true of his statements to lay witnesses. Several witnesses testified that Mr. Miranda had admitted to being involved with the shootings along with his family members. One of the lay witnesses (a jail inmate) reported Mr. Miranda stating that one of the female victims had not died right away, so his family members took a belt and stepped on her throat. Apart from recounting Mr. Miranda's various confessions, several witnesses placed Mr. Miranda together with the victims the night before the murders and another witness recounted that Miranda borrowed the weapon from him. At trial, the State introduced through its medical examiner an autopsy photograph depicting the fetus taken from victim Abigail Torres's womb. The medical examiner explained he had selected the photograph as a jury exhibit because it was helpful in explaining that the baby was full term and that the victim's pregnancy would not have appeared subtle to the outside observer. The trial court admitted the autopsy photo over Mr. Miranda's objection, reasoning its probative value outweighed any prejudice.


Did the trial court commit abuse of discretion when it admitted the autopsy photos in evidence?




Such photos, even if gruesome, are admissible when the probative value outweighs the prejudicial effect. While autopsy photos are often relevant, they can also be prejudicial and unnecessarily cumulative. Trial courts should be wary of admitting autopsy photographs that are cumulative of other evidence. ut while the law requires restraint, it does not demand “preclusion simply because other less inflammatory testimonial evidence is available.” Here, the trial court appropriately weighed the probative value of the autopsy photo against its potential for prejudice. The judge stated he admitted the photo because it would aid the jury's understanding of the medical examiner's testimony and help the State show a reasonable person would have known the victim was pregnant at the time of her death. There is no indication the State sought to use the autopsy photograph for emotive purposes. Given these circumstances, the trial court had a reasonable basis for admitting the photo. 

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