RHODE ISLAND CRIMINAL DEFENSE A Practice Manual – Bias, Motive, or Prejudice

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RI Criminal Defense Practice Manual CoverRHODE ISLAND CRIMINAL DEFENSE
A Practice Manual, 4th Edition
© John E. MacDonald


Bias, Motive, or Prejudice

State v. Parillo, 480 A.2d 1349 (R.I. 1984). In a murder trial, defendant attempted to cross-examine the state’s only witness to the murder as to her motive for testifying, specifically that she was protecting her husband from prosecution. The trial judge’s limitation of cross-examination was deemed reversible error.

  • Complainant’s possible motive to fabricate and her bias were directly relevant.
  • Defendant entitled to present theory of defense to jury.
  • Restrictions by court not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

State v. Olsen, 610 A.2d 1099 (R.I. 1992). In a trial for breaking and entering, the trial court refused to allow the defense to cross-examine state’s chief witness about her prior involvement with a boyfriend and their participation in a break-in in Warwick. This restriction violated defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers. R.I.S.C. vacated and remanded.

  • This evidence is relevant and should have been admitted because it tends to make the existence of a motive to lie more or less probable.
  • The trial court’s concern about this 404(b) evidence could have been overcome with a limiting instruction.

State v. Beaumier, 480 A.2d 1367 (R.I. 1984). This was a robbery trial where the state’s primary witness was a Providence Police officer and friend of the defendant. According to this officer, defendant admitted to him his participation in the robbery. Defense counsel attempted to cross-examine the officer as to thefts at a lumberyard in which the officer was a suspect and under investigation. Counsel was attempting to show that the officer had a motive to fabricate defendant’s admission in order to ingratiate himself with his superiors. The trial judge precluded this area of inquiry and R.I.S.C. reversed.

  • “We have been especially solicitous of cross-examination for bias or motive on the part of a defendant’s primary accuser.” Id. at 1372.
  • “The right of confrontation is concerned with the proposition that a jury be allowed to evaluate any motive that a witness may have for testifying. That right is especially precious where, as here, the motive may belong to the state’s prime witness. It is clear, therefore, that the evidence concerning the investigation should have been admitted. The state, of course, would have both ample ability and ammunition to rebut the alleged motive Lewis may have had to ingratiate himself with his superiors. However, in the final analysis, it is the jury that should consider the evidence and reach its own conclusion.” Id. at 1372.

State v. Bustamante, 756 A.2d 758 (R.I. 2000). Trial justice prevented defendant from cross-examining prosecution witness regarding his expectation of favorable treatment in pending juvenile charges in exchange for his testimony. R.I.S.C. held that the limitation was improper but that the error was harmless.

  • Defendant “ought to be granted wide latitude by the trial justice when inquiring into the possible bias, motive, or prejudice of a witness, including the witness’s subjective expectations.” Id. at 766.
  1. To determine whether an improper limitation of cross-examination is harmless, the court examines the following factors:
  2. The relative degree of importance of the witness testimony to the prosecution’s case;
  3. Whether the testimony was cumulative;
  4. The presence or absence of evidence corroborating or contradicting the testimony of the witness on material points;
  5. The extent of cross-examination otherwise permitted;
  6. The overall strength of the prosecution’s case. Id.

State v. Clark, 974 A.2d 558 (R.I. 2009). Off-duty police officer charged with assaulting a prisoner was prohibited from cross-examining the victim about victim’s hiring of an attorney and making demands for compensation from the town for their alleged liability. Defendant intended the questioning to show the victim’s motive to fabricate. R.I.S.C. vacated and remanded.

  • “At the outset, we pause to express our concern, yet again, with the state’s practice, in its drive to convict, of filing broad-based in limine motions to exclude probative evidence in criminal cases. Too often do these motions impact the constitutional safeguards guaranteed to criminal defendants. We therefore admonish the state to wield its in limine sword carefully.” Id. at 563-64.
  • A trial judge “lacks the discretion to completely (or virtually so) prohibit defense counsel from attempting to elicit testimony regarding bias on the part of the witness.” This applies to relevant testimony showing bias, even when it might be substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Id. at 575.
  • This holding resulted even though the victim had settled his claim with the town by the time of trial. The alleged former bias was still relevant to explain the victim’s earlier statements to police and his motive not to contradict them at trial.

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