State v. Adams, 39402

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Washington
Citation76 Wn.2d 650,458 P.2d 558
Decision Date11 September 1969
Docket NumberNo. 39402,39402
PartiesThe STATE of Washington, Respondent, v. Jerry Ralph ADAMS, Appellant.

J. Lael Simmons, Bellevue, and John R. Simmons, Seattle, for appellant.

Robert E. Schillberg, Pros. Atty., Richard Cole, Deputy Pros. Atty., Everett, for respondent.

NEILL, Judge.

This is an appeal from a conviction of first degree murder. The jury returned a recommendation for the death penalty which was pronounced as the sentence. The evidence is entirely circumstantial. The sufficiency of the evidence is challenged by the defendant; so we deem it necessary to set forth considerable factual detail.

The victim's body was discovered in her home by her daughter about midnight Saturday, June 11, 1966. The daughter immediately summoned the police. Police investigation revealed that the victim died as a result of a number of blows to the head inflicted with a blunt object, believed to be a claw hammer found near her body. The handle was wrapped with a cloth.

The time of the death was not definitely established. Testimony of several witnesses established that the victim was alive the preceding Thursday evening. One doctor testified that the victim died between noon on Thursday and noon on Saturday. Another doctor testified that her death occurred between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Saturday, and that death occurred within a few hours after the victim had eaten a meal.

The victim's automobile was missing when the daughter discovered the body. The victim's neighbor heard a woman scream at about 10 o'clock Friday night. At about 11 p.m. of the same night the same neighbor saw the victim's automobile being driven away. Another witness testified that she saw defendant driving the victim's automobile about 10:30 or 11 o'clock Friday evening. Defendant was seen by numerous witnesses driving the victim's automobile on Saturday and Sunday. Some of these witnesses accompanied defendant on his excursions in the victim's automobile around the Seattle area. During this time, defendant gave these witnesses various explanations as to how he had acquired the automobile. He generally claimed ownership of it.

Defendant abandoned the automobile on Sunday upon hearing on the radio that the victim's body had been discovered. Several days later he was apprehended by the police following a high speed chase. He sustained minor injuries in his effort to avoid capture.

During the period from Friday night to Sunday, defendant was wearing clothing belonging to the victim's son. A suit of clothes which defendant admitted was his was found in the victim's home. Minute spots of blood were found on the clothes left at the home. Defendant's fingerprints were found in the victim's home, particularly on a suitcase containing the victim's papers. The key to this suitcase was found in the victim's automobile. The victim's son testified that he had never loaned his clothes to defendant and that his mother had never loaned his clothes to anyone. The son and daughter also testified that the victim would never loan her automobile to anyone except members of the family.

Defendant testified. He admitted that he had visited the victim's home Friday evening. He further stated that the victim had loaned her automobile and the clothes to him, and that he had not killed her. A young neighbor boy testified that he had seen the victim pick up her mail from in front of her house on Saturday; however, the postman testified that the mail delivered Saturday had not been removed from her mail box.

The first issue raised by defendant's appeal is whether the court erred in admitting into evidence certain colored photographs (slides) taken during the autopsy. He contends that the only reason to show the slides was to inflame the jury with the sight of cruel injuries so as to overwhelm reason and to associate the accused with the atrocity without sufficient evidence. Pictures that accurately represent the true state or condition of the thing depicted are admissible if they have probative value upon some element of the crime charged. State v. Hawkins, 70 Wash.2d 697, 425 P.2d 390 (1967). They have been held to have probative value where they were used to illustrate or explain the testimony of experts such as doctors. State v. Little, 57 Wash.2d 516, 358 P.2d 120 (1961); State v. Nyland, 47 Wash.2d 240, 287 P.2d 345 (1955); State v. Smith, 196 Wash. 534, 83 P.2d 749 (1938).

The fact that photographs are taken at a location other than the scene of the crime (E.g., the morgue) does not affect their admissibility. State v. Little, Supra (photographs at autopsy); State v. Nyland, Supra (photographs at morgue). Photographs which do not depict the corpse as it looked immediately after the crime may be admissible if they have probative value. State v. Little, Supra (photographs amplified testimony concerning cause of death, not condition of body); State v. Smith, Supra (photographs of body 4 months after burial explained testimony concerning cause of death). The fact that the unpleasant aspects of the photographs are in part the result of the autopsy rather than the criminal act which caused death does not necessarily preclude the use of the photographs. See State v. Hardamon, 29 Wash.2d 182, 186 P.2d 634 (1947) (photograph of bandaged head of complaining witness); State v. Smith, Supra (photograph of body 4 months after burial).

Photographs are not inadmissible merely because they are gruesome. State v. Griffith, 52 Wash.2d 721, 328 P.2d 897 (1958). Further, in State v. Payne, 25 Wash.2d 407, 171 P.2d 227 (1946), we observed that a qualification of these rules based solely upon the degree of unpleasantness would only add confusion and uncertainty to the law.

However, these rules are subject to a widely recognized reservation that gruesome photographs designed primarily or solely to arouse the passions of the jury and to prejudice the defendant are not admissible. 'The test of admissibility in such cases is whether the probative value of the photographs outweighs their probable prejudicial effect.' 23 C.J.S. Criminal Law § 852(1), p. 353 (1961). See People v. Cheary, 48 Cal.2d 301, 309 P.2d 431 (1957); State v. Bucanis, 26 N.J. 45, 138 A.2d 739, 73 A.L.R.2d 760 (1958); State v. Morris, 245 La. 175, 157 So.2d 728 (1963); Annot., Evidence--Photograph of Corpse, 73 A.L.R.2d 769, 787--807 (1960). State v. Bucanis Supra, contains a particularly apt statement of the rule at 53, 138 A.2d at 743:

The fact that a photograph may have some probative force is not always completely determinative of its admissibility. There are cases where the logical relevance of such an exhibit will unquestionably be overwhelmed by its inherently prejudicial qualities which will impair the defendant's right to a fair and impartial trial. When undoubtedly the minute peg of relevancy will be entirely obscured by the quantity of dirty linen hung upon it, fair play directs the exclusion of the exhibit.

This balancing of the relevancy and probative value of photographic evidence against its harmful effect upon an accused rests primarily with the trial court. State v. King, 71 Wash.2d 573, 429 P.2d 914 (1967). But this rule does not relieve us of the obligation to review the exercise of this discretion and to grant a criminal defendant a new trial if this court is convinced that there has been an abuse of that discretion. This is a situation where the policy of protecting a defendant from undue prejudice conflicts with the rule of logical relevance. A proper determination as to which should prevail rests in the sound discretion of the trial court, and not merely on whether the evidence comes within certain categories. State v. King, Supra; State v. Johnson, 56 Wash.2d 700, 355 P.2d 13 (1960).

The slides used in the case at bar were assuredly gruesome. However, we cannot change the fact that this was a gruesome crime. As much as courts should and do keep a trial clear of potentially prejudicial matter, this obligation, within our concept of a fair trial for an accused, must be applied with the realities of the facts which the state is required to prove. A bloody, brutal crime cannot be explained to a jury in a lily-white manner to save the members of the jury the discomforture of hearing and seeing the results of such criminal activity. Each slide shown had considerable probative value to prove relevant and material issues in the case.

In cases involving violent crimes, particularly unwitnessed murders, the testimony of the doctor performing the autopsy is often crucial in establishing relevant and material facts. As the expert testified in the instant case, doctors performing autopsies often photograph the various stages of their examinations, and such photographs are quite helpful and necessary for a jury of laymen to understand the doctor's testimony. The autopsy surgeon's testimony, in conjunction with which the slides were shown, was important in establishing certain material facts: (1) the exact cause of death; (2) the nature and location of the wounds; (3) the similarity between the hammer in evidence and the type of instrument which inflicted the wounds; and (4) that the victim was attacked from behind and apparently did not attempt to or have the opportunity to defend herself.

The slides were used to illustrate the doctor's explanation of his opinion as to the cause of death, type of instrument used and to show that the victim's black eyes were the result of a blow to the back of the head and not to the eyes directly. This testimony has probative value to substantiate the state's theory that the victim was struck from the rear as she fled from her assailant.

Defense counsel vigorously opposed the admission of these slides. He argued that the witness had not testified that the slides were necessary to an understanding of his proposed testimony. Therefore, in answer to a question by ...

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