, , , , , ,

Disabling Condition: Should Evidence of Defendant’s Disability be Admissible in Assault/Police Brutality Trial?, by Colin Miller, EvidenceProf Blog


According to an article in the Lake Geneva News,

‘A man who is accused of attacking a police officer, but counters that he is the victim of police brutality, is set for his second jury trial next Monday.

Daniel White, 42, of rural Elkhorn, faces three felony counts and a misdemeanor related to an incident in which his two pit bulls bit two deputies and he allegedly struck a deputy with his fist and a wood board.

White, who walked in the courthouse with a cane and collects disability checks, contends that the officer knocked down his stockade fence, beat him up and lied to conceal their actions.’

Prior to trial, the prosecution asked the judge to (1) prohibit White’s cane from being in the jury; and (2) to exclude evidence of White’s disability. How should the judge rule?

Well, the judge has already ruled ‘refused to force White to hide his cane during the trial.’ I think this seems like the only correct outcome. First, there is simply the matter of logistics. For instance, a defendant has to stand when the judge enters the courtroom. Given that, it’s difficult to see how the cane could be completely hidden from view. Second, courts have found no problem with defendants being in shackles in the courtroom when such restraint is necessary. Reciprocity would thus seem to require allowing a defendant in need of a cane to be able to use it in plain view of jurors.

The more difficult question is whether the defense should be able to present evidence of White’s disability. Part of this depends on the defense’s theory of the case. Is the claim that White’s disability made him physically unable to commit the crimes alleged in the complaint? If so, you might recall the infamous O.J. Simpson trial in which Richard Walsh was allowed to give testimony that the former running back’s football injuries caused problems with his problems with knees, back, shoulder and hands.

Is the claim self-defense, with White’s claim being that his disability should be part of the reasonable person analysis? If that’s the case, check out this excerpt from Hendrix v. State, 369 S.W.3d 93 (Mo.App. 2012):

‘Although Ransom was decided in the context of a civil claim of self-defense, its analysis of the ‘reasonable person’ standard is relevant to determining whether Hendrix’s medical records were relevant to his claim of self-defense….Hendrix’s medical records, if entered into evidence at trial, would have merely established that he suffered from degenerative joint disease in his knees. As Ransom indicated, a defendant’s ‘proclivities or propensities are irrelevant’ to the issue of whether the defendant acted as a ‘reasonable person.’…Williams was not ineffective for failing to present irrelevant evidence because it would have been inadmissible at trial….

Even if evidence of Hendrix’s disabilities would have been relevant and, therefore, admissible, Hendrix offered no evidence at the motion hearing to demonstrate that, had Williams entered Hendrix’s medical records detailing his degenerative joint disease, the jury would have acquitted Hendrix. The jury heard Paynter’s testimony that Hendrix wore knee braces, and the defense’s closing argument utilized Hendrix’s knee injuries to argue the relative size difference between Hendrix and Paynter. Despite the jury hearing that evidence and argument, it rejected Hendrix’s self-defense theory. Hendrix has not demonstrated that, had the medical records been admitted, there is a reasonable probability that he would have been found not guilty.’

Hendrix seems to stand for the proposition that some evidence of a defendant’s disabilities is admissible but that medical records are not. But, of course, those records were offered for a particular purpose which might well be different from the purpose at White’s trial. -CM