United States v. Sanders
964 F.2d 295 (1992)

  • Sanders and Alston were in prison after being convicted of assault.  They were charged with assaulting another inmate, Jenkins, with a shank, and possession of said shank.
    • Sanders argued that it was self-defense.
  • At trial, the prosecution attempted to introduce evidence of Sanders’ prior convictions.
    • Sanders argued that this was prejudicial and was inadmissible
    • The prosecution argued that under FRE 609(a) and FRE 404(b), they were allowed to impeach a witness’ credibility by introducing evidence of prior convictions.
      • The theory was that the fact that Sanders had assaulted people in the past made his self-defense claim less credible.
  • The Trial Judge allowed the evidence to be admitted.
    • Although only the evidence of convictions was admissible, other evidence of crimes where Sanders was arrested but not convicted was not admissible.
  • The Trial Court convicted Sanders of assault and possession of contraband.  He appealed.
  • The Appellate Court reversed the decision to admit the evidence.
    • The Appellate Court looked at FRE 609(b)(1), which says that evidence of prior convictions is only admissible if the probative value of admitting the evidence outweighs its prejudicial effect.  They found that the probative value was small, and therefore the evidence was not admissible under FRE 609(a).
      • In addition, there was no evidence that the Trial Judge had attempted to perform a balancing test.
    • The Appellate Court noted that FRE 404(b) cannot be used to show the character of the person, it can only be admissible for other purposes.  In this case they felt that the evidence “proved only criminal disposition.”  Therefore it was inadmissible.
      • His prior assault did not speak to his motive, intent or plan to shank Jenkins.  It only showed that he liked to stab people.
      • Had Sanders argued that he didn’t know how to stab someone, then the evidence would have been admissible to show that he did possess the knowledge to stab someone.  But Sanders admitted the assault, so that wasn’t an issue in this case.
    • The Court found that the error was reversible in the charge of assault and remanded for a new trial, but was harmless error in the charge of possession of contraband, so they affirmed that verdict.