Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals: Prior Bad Acts and Rule 404(b) – The trial court better limit how the jury considers the defendant’s past.
Towles v. State, CR-09-0396 (Ala. Crim. App. 2013)
“Past bad acts don’t always establish motive for present ones. Trial courts must limit how juries consider Rule 404(b) evidence.”
Towles was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death because the victim was under the age of 14. §13A-5-40(a)(15), Ala. Code 1975.
Towles allegedly killed Geontae Glass, the son of Towles’ girlfriend, by beating him and inflicting massive internal injuries, which ultimately led to his death. The prosecution theorized that Towles beat Glass because Glass had received poor conduct grades at school. In order to bolster its case, the State offered evidence that Towles had beaten one of his sons, Shaquille Cameron, with a metal box fan after Towles found drinking cups underneath Cameron’s bed.
Towles complained to the trial court that Shaquille’s testimony was inadmissible under Rule 404(b), Ala. R. Evid., because the testimony merely presented the jury with allegations of other bad acts. The trial court instructed the jury that it could only use Cameron’s testimony as evidence of “identity” or “motive,” which are exceptions to Rule 404(b).
What did the Court say?
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals determined that Cameron’s testimony did nothing to establish the identity of Glass’s killer, nor did it somehow show Towles had a motive for killing Glass. Because Cameron’s testimony couldn’t help the jury identify the Glass’s killer and because Cameron’s testimony couldn’t help the jury see a motive of Towles for killing Glass, the Court of Criminal Appeals had to reverse Towles’s conviction and death sentence.
What are some finer points of this opinion?
1. A trial court must carefully instruct a jury on how evidence of prior bad acts maybe used.
The Court of Criminal Appeals reaffirmed this principle more fully fleshed-out in Ex parte Billups, 86 So. 3d 1079 (Ala. 2010). Simply stated, a jury cannot be instructed that it can consider evidence of a collateral bad act for a purpose that isn’t at issue in the case.
2. All cases involving “motive” are not equal.
On appeal the State asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to reply upon a string of cases involving prosecutions for the sexual abuse of a child and evidence of collateral acts of prior sexual child abuse. In those cases, the Court of Criminal Appeals gave trial courts more leeway to allow prosecutors to introduce evidence of prior acts of the sexual abuse of a child when the prosecutors were trying to establish the defendant’s motive to commit yet another sexual abuse of a child. Here, the Court of Criminal Appeals refused to broaden the scope of what can be considered evidence of motive in cases outside of those involving sexual abuse of children.
3. The plain or harmless error rule still applies.
Although the Court of Criminal Appeals reiterated that it’s error for a trial court to instruct a jury that it can consider evidence of a collateral bad act for a purpose not at issue at trial, the error is still subject to plain or harmless error review. The Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that Cameron’s testimony was plain error “[g]iven the highly prejudicial nature of collateral acts involving child abuse.” Towles, CR-09-0396, at *20.