State v. Green

Citation29 P.3d 271,200 Ariz. 496
Decision Date17 August 2001
Docket NumberNo. CR-99-0569-PR.,CR-99-0569-PR.
PartiesSTATE of Arizona, Appellee, v. Randy Lee GREEN, Appellant.
CourtSupreme Court of Arizona

Janet Napolitano, Arizona Attorney General, By Randall M. Howe, Chief Counsel, Criminal Appeals Section, and John L. Saccoman, Assistant Attorney General, Phoenix, for Appellee.

James J. Haas, Maricopa County Public Defender, By James R. Rummage, Deputy Public Defender, Phoenix, for Appellant.


ZLAKET, Chief Justice.

¶ 1 In 1997, Randy Lee Green lived in guest quarters behind Eileen Cochran's house. Upon arriving home in the early morning hours of September 13, he entered the main residence. Cochran was asleep in her room. An acquaintance, Barbara Dowling, was sleeping in a spare bedroom just down the hall. According to Dowling's testimony at trial, she awoke to find a naked Green in her bed. He allegedly was fondling her breast and genital area. He also had placed her hand on his penis. She ordered Green out of the room. He left, and she screamed for Eileen.

¶ 2 Cochran testified that when she arrived, she saw Dowling in distress and heard her mention Green's name. Cochran ran out to the guest house and confronted Green. He denied any knowledge of the incident. She then returned to the main house and tried to calm Dowling. Eventually, Green was taken into custody and charged with one count of sexual assault and one count of sexual abuse.

¶ 3 Before trial, the prosecution learned that Green had two 1982 sexually-related felony convictions in California, for which he had served time until 1985. The state gave written notice of its intent to introduce these prior convictions as impeachment evidence should Green choose to testify. The defendant moved in limine to preclude such evidence pursuant to Arizona Rule of Evidence 609(b). The trial judge denied the motion, stating:

Since there were only two people that know whether this event actually occurred or not, the defendant's credibility, if he chooses to testify, is extremely important for the jury to analyze. On the other hand, the remoteness of the offenses and the fact that one of them by name is extremely prejudicial has great weight.... If the defendant chooses to testify, I will allow the State to impeach him with the fact that he has two prior felony convictions. However, ... [n]either party can refer to the names of the convictions or any of the facts behind the convictions.... [A]s sanitized, I find that the probative value of the convictions substantially outweigh the danger of unfair undue prejudice.

¶ 4 Green took the stand and denied any involvement in the current incident. He testified that he had not entered the spare bedroom, gotten into the bed, or touched Dowling. He stated that the first time he had heard of the matter was when Cochran came to the guest house and asked "[W]hat's going on between you and Barbara?"

¶ 5 During cross-examination, the prosecutor asked Green about the existence of his "two prior felony convictions dated February 26, 1982." The defendant admitted them. After both sides finished their questioning, two jurors submitted questions. One asked, "Are the prior felonies of Mr. Green sexually related?" Another asked "Are we allowed to know prior convictions?" The court did not put either question to the defendant. Instead, it instructed the jury to consider the prior convictions only to the extent that they might bear upon the defendant's believability as a witness, not as proof that he was guilty of the current charges.

¶ 6 The jury returned a guilty verdict on the sexual abuse count, but was unable to decide the sexual assault charge.1 The defendant was sentenced to a term of imprisonment on the sexual abuse conviction, from which he now appeals. The court of appeals affirmed in a memorandum decision. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Ariz. Const. art. VI, § 5(3) and Ariz. R.Crim. P. 31.19.


¶ 7 When reviewing a ruling on the admissibility of prior convictions, this court will overturn the trial court's determination only if it proves to have been a clear abuse of discretion. State v. Bolton, 182 Ariz. 290, 303, 896 P.2d 830, 843 (1995); State v. Dickson, 143 Ariz. 200, 202-03, 693 P.2d 337, 339-40 (1985); State v. Perkins, 141 Ariz. 278, 283, 686 P.2d 1248, 1253 (1984).

1. Rule 609

¶ 8 Rule 609 of the Arizona Rules of Evidence governs the admissibility of prior convictions. It represents a slightly modified version of Federal Rule 609, and provides that a party can impeach a witness with a prior conviction if (1) it was for a crime "punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year" or an offense that "involved dishonesty or false statement, regardless of the punishment;" and (2) its probative value outweighs its prejudicial effect. Ariz. R. Evid. 609(a). Consistent with this general rule, we have observed that "a major crime entails such an injury to and disregard of the rights of other persons that it can reasonably be expected the witness will be untruthful if it is to his advantage." State v. Williams, 144 Ariz. 433, 438, 698 P.2d 678, 683 (1985) (quoting State v. Malloy, 131 Ariz. 125, 127, 639 P.2d 315, 317 (1981)).

¶ 9 However, "as ... convictions become older they have increasingly less probative value on credibility." State v. Lucas, 146 Ariz. 597, 606, 708 P.2d 81, 90 (1985) (citing to M. Udall & J. Livermore, Arizona Practice, Laws of Evidence § 47 at 90 (2nd ed.1982)). Thus, Rule 609(b) allows admission of a "remote" or "stale" conviction—one that is over ten years old—only if the proponent shows that its probative value "substantially outweighs its prejudicial effect." Ariz. R. Evid. 609(b) (emphasis added).2 Moreover, the admissibility finding must be supported by "specific facts and circumstances" that should be disclosed on the record. State v. Ellerson, 125 Ariz. 249, 252, 609 P.2d 64, 67 (1980) (citation omitted), overruled on other grounds by State v. Fettis, 136 Ariz. 58, 664 P.2d 208 (1983)

; see also S.Rep. No. 93-1277, at 15 (1974), reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. 7051, 7061.

¶ 10 When interpreting an evidentiary rule that predominantly echoes its federal counterpart, we often look to the latter for guidance. E.g., State v. Piatt, 132 Ariz. 145, 149, 644 P.2d 881, 885 (1981)

(citing to "[t]he Advisory Committee's Note attending Rule 601 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which Arizona adopted with little variation"). The House Judiciary Committee submitted a proposed version of federal Rule 609 that banned the use of remote prior convictions. H.R.Rep. No. 93-650, at 11 (1973), reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. 7075, 7085. The Senate, however, took a slightly different approach. While it agreed that "convictions over ten years old generally do not have much probative value," it recognized that "there may be exceptional circumstances under which the conviction substantially bears on the credibility of the witness." S.Rep. No. 93-1277, at 15, reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. 7051, 7061. The full Congress agreed.

¶ 11 Shortly thereafter Arizona adopted the federal rule with minor changes, none of which are relevant to this opinion. Thus, the final formulation of our Rule 609 reflects the federal drafters' intent that remote convictions should be admitted "very rarely and only in exceptional circumstances." Id. at 15, reprinted in 1974 U.S.C.C.A.N. 7051, 7061-62.

2. Application

¶ 12 There is no question that Green's convictions were more than ten years old. Therefore, the state bore the burden of proving exceptional circumstances. Williams, 144 Ariz. at 437, 698 P.2d at 682; 4 Jack B. Weinstein & Margaret A. Berger, Weinstein's Federal Evidence § 609.06[1] (Joseph M. McLaughlin, ed., 2d ed.1997). We have previously spoken of factors that might be considered by trial judges in permitting the use of prior convictions. In State v. Noble, 126 Ariz. 41, 43, 612 P.2d 497, 499 (1980), we said:

In deciding whether a prior conviction can be utilized for impeachment purposes, the trial court takes into account many factors such as the remoteness of the conviction, the nature of the prior felony, the length of the former imprisonment, the age of the defendant, and his conduct since the prior offense. There are no set guidelines.

(Citations omitted). In State v. Williams, we reviewed a 609(a) ruling and again enumerated circumstances that could be considered in determining the probative value of a prior conviction. These included the "impeachment value of the prior, length of time since the prior conviction, the witness' history since the prior conviction, the similarity between the past and present crimes, the importance of defendant's testimony, and the `centrality of the credibility issue.'" Williams, 144 Ariz. at 438, 698 P.2d at 683 (citing United States v. Mahone, 537 F.2d 922, 929 (7th Cir.1976)).

¶ 13 The fact that Williams was a 609(a) case does not make the foregoing factors inapplicable to a 609(b) analysis. Compare Mahone, 537 F.2d at 929

(listing the Williams factors in a 609(a) case), with United States v. Townsend, 555 F.2d 152, 159 (7th Cir.1977) (citing to Mahone when describing the balancing method to be used in a 609(b) case); and United States v. Meyers, 952 F.2d 914, 916 (6th Cir.1992) (applying the Williams factors in a 609(a) case), with United States v. Sloman, 909 F.2d 176, 180-81 (6th Cir.1990) (applying the same factors in a 609(b) case). The critical difference between Rule 609(a) and (b) lies in the balancing standard to be applied, not in the facts and circumstances to be considered.

¶ 14 The trial court here listed only one of the Williams factors, the centrality of credibility, in support of its ruling. We do not believe that this alone "substantially outweighs" the prejudicial effect of two remote convictions that would otherwise be inadmissible as a matter of sound judicial policy. We agree with the Fifth Circuit's observation that "the mere fact that the defendant's credibility is in...

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