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Evidence Archives | Fort Worth Criminal Defense Attorneys and Personal Injury Lawyers

Milton v State Improper Closing Argument 2019

Lions, and Babies, and Appeals! Oh my! | When Demonstrative Evidence Goes Too Far

By | Trial Advocacy

When Does a Closing Argument Go Too Far?

Milton v State Improper Closing Argument 2019What do Atticus Finch, Lt. Daniel Kaffee, and Jake Brigance have in common? Each of these fictional movie attorneys are known for zealously representing their clients by delivering intense cross examinations and galvanizing closing arguments. Finch, defending a wrongly-accused man in a time a place where justice was compromised by racial bias, implored the jury to seek justice by tapping into a higher power, “In the name of God do your duty.” Stuck at the crossroads of respecting formal rank and seeking justice in a military court-martial, Lt. Kaffee made the choice to double down on Col. Jessep during cross examination, poking at the Colonel’s pride. Col. Jessep took Lt. Kaffee’s bait, screaming, “You can’t handle the truth!” Jake Brigance took a more creative approach. Asking jurors to close their eyes, Brigance described a depraved series of events that caused his client to murder two people. The jury agreed with the justification, and acquitted Brigance’s client.

Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, an attorney must render competent and diligent representation to their clients, “and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf.” “1.01 Competent and Diligent Representation,” www.legalethicstexas.com, accessed April 6, 2019. Where is the line drawn for zealous representation in a closing argument? Can demonstrative evidence used in a closing argument go too far? The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas (“CCA”) says it can.

Milton v State (Tex. Crim. App. 2019) | Improper Closing Argument?

In 2015, Damon Milton robbed a drug store by asking a cashier to give him the money from the cash register. Milton never showed a weapon, and he pretended to shop until customers were not around. He always kept his hands out and visible. According to the police report, Milton did not have a weapon. Additionally, there was some circumstantial evidence that Milton had committed the same robbery to the same drug store the day before. At trial, Milton was found guilty of robbery.

During the sentencing phase of the trial, the State entered into evidence and played before the jury a 35-second video of a baby dressed in zebra-striped clothing at a zoo sitting in front of a protective glass enclosure. Behind the glass was a lion, ferociously trying to get to the baby. The State argued that Milton deserved a long sentence because of his criminal background and because of the crime. Additionally, the State entered into evidence Milton’s criminal history which included forgery, attempted unauthorized use of a motorized vehicle, and robbery by threat.

Defense for Milton objected to the video, on the grounds of relevance and prejudice. Moreover, “there [was] no indication that any of his past convictions involved crimes that were particularly brutal or gruesome…[nor]…any indication that…[there were any] crimes against children.” The State responded that the video illustrated that “motive plus opportunity equals behavior.” In other words, that getting away with a light sentence could embolden Milton to commit future crimes; or that if Milton would be locked away in prison, then he would not be able to commit a future crime, as imprisonment “removes the opportunity.”

Further, the State described the video to the jury, “the motive of that lion is never-changing, never changing, it’s innate…with the glass, the scene is funny, without the glass, a tragedy.” The State added, “we know that the [defendant] is such a bad guy…it’s almost laughable, just like that lion…nothing funny when the [defendant] is outside of prison, that’s a tragedy…[he] is never changing his motive.” The jury assessed Milton’s punishment at 50 years. Milton appealed to the court of appeals, arguing that the trial court’s allowing the video was an abuse of its discretion. On appeal, the State argued that the video was an impassioned plea for law enforcement and community protection, saying it was acceptable to argue that the defendant was a “vicious lion trying to eat a baby and the court needed to stop him.” The court of appeals upheld the trial courts holding, though the court noted that the State’s analysis was “tenuous.” Milton appealed to the CCA.

CCA Holds that Closing Arguments Should Not Inflame a Jury with Things Not Before Them

The CCA had to determine whether the demonstrative video shown at the sentencing phase of the trial was out of step. “The purpose of a closing argument is to facilitate the jury in properly analyzing the evidence presented…so that it may arrive at a just and reasonable conclusion based on the evidence alone, and not on any fact not admitted into evidence.” Campbell v. State, 610 S.W.2d 754, 756 (Tex. Crim. App. 1980). “It should not arouse the passion or prejudice of the jury by matters not properly before them.” Id. “Arguments that go beyond summation of the evidence, reasonable deduction from the evidence, answer to arguments made by opposing counsel, or law enforcement please, too often place before the jury unsworn…testimony of the attorney.” Alejandro v. State, 493 S.W.2d 230, 231 (Tex. Crim. App. 1973). Even though jurors are not stupid, they are human, which is why courts prohibit highly prejudicial evidence.

Accordingly, the CCA concluded that the video could be considered unfairly prejudicial “because it encouraged the jury to make its decision upon matters outside of the record by inviting a comparison between [Milton] and hungry lion.” “The State may strike hard blows, but it must not strike foul ones.” Jordan v. State, 646 S.W.2d 946 (Tex. Crim. App. 1983). There are limits to demonstrative aids in closing arguments. The CCA reversed the court of appeals opinion and remanded to the appeals court for a harm analysis.

Tampering with Evidence Texas 37.09

Tampering with Evidence under Texas Law | Section 37.09 TX Penal Code

By | Evidence

Tampering with Evidence Texas 37.09During routine traffic stops, police officers sometimes end up arresting individuals for the third-degree felony offense of Tampering with Evidence. How does this happen you ask? If, during the course of a traffic stop, an officer observes the driver toss an item or two out of the window, and those tossed items are later determined to be drugs and/or drug paraphernalia, the officer might just arrest the person for tampering with evidence pursuant to section 37.09 of the Texas Penal Code. The important question though, is whether section 37.09 was intended to prohibit this type of conduct?

What is the Purpose of Section 37.09 – Tampering with Evidence?

Texas Penal Code Section 37.09 provides:

(a) A person commits an offense if, knowing that an investigation or official proceeding is pending or in progress, he:
     (1) alters, destroys, or conceals any record, document, or thing with intent to impair its verity, legibility, or availability as evidence in the investigation or official proceeding;  or
     (2) makes, presents, or uses any record, document, or thing with knowledge of its falsity and with intent to affect the course or outcome of the investigation or official proceeding.

Texas courts have found that the purpose of section 37.09 is to uphold the integrity of our criminal justice system. 20 Tex. Jur. 3d Criminal Law: Offenses Against Public Administration § 63 citing Wilson v. State, 311 S.W.3d 452 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010); Haywood v. State, 344 S.W.3d 454 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2011 pet. ref’d). This includes prohibiting anyone from “creating, destroying, forging, altering, or otherwise tampering with evidence that may be used in an official investigation or judicial proceeding.” Id. However, section 37.09 is not without limitation.

What is the Scope of Section 37.09?

Early case law suggests the scope of 37.09 is very limited. But, as you will read below, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejects this notion by allowing the fact finder the ability infer the intent to tamper.

In Pannell v. State, 7 S.W.3d 222 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1999, pet. ref’d) the court of appeals held that section 37.09 requires a defendant to know that the item “altered, destroyed, or concealed, was evidence of an investigation, that is pending or in progress, as it existed at the time of the alteration, destruction, or concealment.” Id. In this case, the defendant threw a marijuana cigarette out of the window while he was being pulled over for speeding. Id. Because the officer was only investigating a speeding violation when the defendant threw the marijuana out of the window, the court held that there was no evidence that an investigation in which the marijuana would serve as evidence was “pending or in progress.” Id. The court explained that only after the officer observed the defendant throw out the marijuana did the investigation change to involve drugs. As a result, the court determined there was no evidence of tampering. This analysis, however, has been rejected, albeit not explicitly overruled, in Williams v. State, 270 S.W.3d 140 (Tex. Crim. App. 2008).

In Williams, an officer was conducting a traffic stop and decided to conduct a pat down search of the driver (i.e. defendant) for weapons. During the pat down a crack pipe fell onto the pavement, and the defendant immediately stomped on the pipe, crushing it with his foot. When deciding whether or not the above actions constituted tampering, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the lower court’s analysis, which stated that the traffic stop became a drug investigation once the officer and the defendant noticed the pipe on the pavement, and only then was there tampering. In rejecting this analysis, the Court held that requiring a change in the investigation, as the appellate court’s analysis and Pannell does, adds an additional mens rea element not required by section 37.09.

Thus, the Court held that when an officer is investigating a traffic stop and the suspect anticipates that the officer will begin a drug investigation if the officer finds evidence of drugs, and in accordance with that anticipation, the suspect destroys the drugs before the officer becomes aware of them, the suspect has tampered with evidence. As such, there is no requirement for the officer to “see the pipe” or “see the marijuana” before the suspect throws it out of the window in order for that action to constitute tampering. The determination will be made by the finder of fact using circumstantial evidence to draw inferences.

In Conclusion . . .

In conclusion, if the only evidence the State has of tampering is the fact that the defendant threw the item out of the window, without any other indicia of tampering, then the act alone does not rise to level of tampering under section 37.09. However, there are many reasonable circumstances, ever so slight, that could lend the fact finder to make an inference of intent to tamper. With that being said, because the offense of tampering is extremely fact-based, we recommend you reach out to our experienced attorneys to better understand your options.

Pretext Phone Call Texas Sexual Assault

Pretext Phone Calls in Sexual Assault Investigations

By | Sex Crimes

Pretext Phone Call Texas Sexual AssaultDid you ever get the feeling like someone is recording your conversation? Texas is a one party consent state meaning your conversations can be recorded and listened to by third parties as long as one party to that conversation consents. In sexual assault investigations, especially where the victim knows the suspect, investigators often use recorded phone calls between the suspect and the complaining witness of the alleged assault. These recorded calls are called “pretext” phone calls. Not only will these phone calls be used to build a case against a suspect but might also be used in court against the suspect.

What is a Pretext Phone Call?

A pretext phone call is a tool used by police officers in the early stages of investigation, especially in sexual assault investigations. It is a tape recorded phone call between the victim and the suspect made by the victim or a close friend of the victim. The phone calls will be made under the supervision of police officers and most preferably the lead investigator or detective. The victim will be provided with all of the equipment necessary to record the phone call. Additionally, the victim will be given direction by the officers on the time of day or night to call the suspect, what type of questions to ask the suspect, and what to prepare for. The victim will be told to ask questions in certain ways that are more likely to solicit an incriminating response instead of just going full speed ahead with the “Why did you rape me?” question, which, for good reason, will cause the suspect to shut down or become defensive stating they did no such thing. An example of a question a victim might told to ask is “Why did you have sex with me after I pushed you way and told you to stop?”

The purpose of pretext phone calls is to, hopefully, obtain an incriminating statement by the suspect. The statements made by the suspect will be used to build the case against the suspect by corroborating information that the victim has told the police officers and help make victim testimony more credible in front of a jury.

Pretext Phone Calls—Used in Drug or Alcohol Related Sexual Offenses and Where the Victim and Suspect Know Each other

Pretext phone calls are often utilized in cases where the victim and suspect know each other. This is because the victim will already have the suspects phone number and vice versa or the victim can come up with a creative way for how they got the suspect’s number, i.e. “I got your number from John Doe, our mutual friend.” Also, they can be particularly helpful in drug and alcohol related sexual assault cases where they knew each other, even if only acquaintances. In such an instance, the victim will be directed to ask questions such as, “You knew I was out of it and didn’t know what was going on, but you had sex with me anyway. Why?”.

When Can Pretext Phone Calls Be Made Under Texas Law?

Preferably, pretext phone calls should be made before the suspect knows there is an investigation against him. For legality purposes, pretext phone calls must be made before a suspects Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaches. Rubalco v. State, 424 S.W.3d 560. The Sixth Amendment right to counsel attaches “at the first appearance before a judicial officer at which the defendant is told of the formal accusation against him and restrictions are imposed on his liberty.” Id.

Thus, if there are no Sixth Amendment issues, pretext phone calls will likely be admissible against the suspect in trial. Id.

Be Aware That Your Phone Conversations Might Be Used Against You

Being in the state of Texas we should all be aware that every phone conversation we have can legally be recorded but you should be especially aware if the conversation gets serious. If you have any “hunch” that an investigation against you might be underway for an alleged sexual assault, contact our experienced attorneys today to learn your rights during these investigations.

Video Footage Evidence Fowler

Is a Video of a Video Admissible in a Criminal Trial?

By | Evidence

Video Footage Evidence FowlerTechnology has dramatically changed the landscape of criminal law procedure, and ultimately criminal convictions, in Texas. Updated DNA testing exonerates the wrongly-accused, while incriminating the guilty. Traffic cameras are commonplace on Main Street, clocking speeding motorists who are subject to fines and penalties—and bad feelings. Recently in Arkansas, recordings from Amazon’s Echo artificial intelligence device have been used by prosecutors as evidence in a murder trial. As digital evidence evolves rapidly, so must the evidentiary rules supporting admissibility. In this late-breaking case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals considers one man’s conviction for theft and burglary vis a vis the admissibility of “picture only” video footage.

State v. Fowler (Tex. Crim. App. 2018)

Fresh Tire Marks Lead to a Suspicious Dollar Store Receipt

Law enforcement was called to the scene of a burglary at a business in Royse City, Texas. Police discovered disarray; cut wires, mangled cables, and bolt cutters were seized as evidence, but no suspects were apprehended. One month later, police were called to investigate the same scene for another burglary. This time, ATV tracks led police to a nearby field where they found a receipt from the local Family Dollar store mere feet away from a stolen ATV. Even more curious were the items listed on the receipt, which included duct tape and utility knives. Police used the date, time stamp, and the address on the receipt to request video footage from inside the store. Employees at Family Dollar provided investigators with time and date-stamped footage that corresponded with the receipt found at the scene of the crime. Police recorded the incriminating footage on their body cameras, as recording from a VHS cassette proved time-consuming and clunky. Although the footage was non-audio “picture only,” it showed a suspect purchasing the items that were reflected on the receipt found at the crime scene. Further, the footage time and date stamps placed the individual inside of Family Dollar at a certain time, on a particular day.

Leveraging all of the information learned from the receipts, the fact that the ATV was stolen, and the video footage, law enforcement soon had a suspect—Jamel Fowler. Fowler was convicted of theft of property for stealing the ATV and was sentenced by a jury to two years imprisonment. Fowler appealed. On appeal, the court reversed the trial court’s conviction and sentencing, holding that “trial court committed reversible error by admitting an unauthenticated videotape exhibit into evidence.” The State of Texas appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals to determine whether prosecutors may prove authenticity of video footage without the testimony of someone who either witnessed what the video depicts or is familiar with the functioning of the recording device. In other words, is the video of a video at Family Dollar admissible as evidence against Fowler? In order to answer that question, the CCA looked to Texas Rule of Evidence 901.

Texas Rule of Evidence 901 and the Authenticity Requirement

Texas Rule of Evidence 901 governs the authentication requirement for the admissibility of evidence. Typically, to satisfy the requirement of authenticating evidence, the person offering the evidence must produce items or data sufficient to support a finding that the item or data is what the proponent claims it is.

“Authenticity may be established with evidence of distinctive characteristics and the like, which include [t]he appearance, contents, substance, internal patterns, or other distinctive characteristics of the item, taken together with all the circumstances.”

TEX. R. EVID. 901(b)(4); see Druery v. State, 225 S.W.3d 491, 502 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007). Conclusive proof of authenticity before allowing admission of disputed evidence is not required.

Applying Rule 901 to a “Picture Only” Video of a Video

May the proponent of a video sufficiently prove its authenticity without the testimony of someone who either witnessed what the video depicts or is familiar with the functioning of the recording device? The Court answers that, yes, it is possible, given the facts.

Here, the Court acknowledged the argument of the defense in the appeal: “The court of appeals’s point is well-taken—the State could have done more [to prove up the evidence presented]. However, even though the most common way to authenticate a video is through the testimony of a witness with personal knowledge who observed the scene, that is not the only way.”

The Court reasoned that video recordings without audio are treated as photographs and are properly authenticated when it can be proven that the images accurately represent the scene in question and are relevant to a disputed issue. Huffman v. State, 746 S.W.2d 212, 222 (Tex. Crim. App. 1988). The Court stated that (1) the officer’s in-person request of the manager of the Family Dollar store to pull the surveillance video on a certain date at a certain time; (2) that the distinctive characteristic that there is a date and time stamp on the videotape; and (3) the fact that the date and time on the videotape correspond to the date and time on the receipt that was found within three feet of the ATV; (4) the fact that the videotape pulled by the manager reveals Fowler at the store on that date at that time purchasing the items listed on the receipt that was found near the stolen ATV, were enough, together, to authenticate the video. The video was sufficiently authenticated to be admissible into evidence. The evidence strongly pointed to Fowler and, accordingly, his conviction was upheld.

Fort Worth DWI Lawyers

Coming Soon: DWI Videos Releasable to Defendant

By | DWI

Legislative Changes to Texas DWI Laws | Fort Worth DWI Defense Attorneys

Fort Worth DWI LawyersDWI Update:  Some clients want to see their DWI video.  Some don’t.  Some want to take it home and show their friends and some want to dig a deep hole and bury it away forever.  Since the passing of the Michael Morton act, regardless of their clients’ wishes, criminal defense lawyers could not provide a copy of the DWI video without first obtaining a court order or prosecutor permission.  This all changes on 9/1/15.

This past legislative session, the Texas legislature passed House Bill 3791 which amends Chapter 2 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure by adding the following paragraph:

Art. 2.139. VIDEO RECORDINGS OF ARRESTS FOR INTOXICATION OFFENSES.

A person stopped or arrested on suspicion of an offense under Section 49.04, 49.045, 49.07, or 49.08, Penal Code, is entitled to receive from a law enforcement agency employing the peace officer who made the stop or arrest a copy of any video made by or at the direction of the officer that contains footage of:

(1) the stop;

(2) the arrest;

(3) the conduct of the person stopped during any interaction with the officer, including during the administration of a field sobriety test; or

(4) a procedure in which a specimen of the person’s breath or blood is taken.

Now (beginning 9/1/15) DWI defendants are entitled to receive a copy of the DWI video (if they want it).  There is no clarification regarding whether the defense attorney, or the DA may provide the copy, but at a minimum it may come from the police agency.

DWI Trial Lawyers | Free Consultations

Barnett Howard & Williams PLLC practices DWI defense in Fort Worth, Texas.  Our office is located in Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth.  Call (817) 993-9249 for free consultation of your DWI case.

Texas Criminal Attorneys

The Rest of the Story on a Wrongful Conviction

By | Wrongful Conviction

Texas Criminal AttorneysPosted by Luke A. Williams.

I recently attended – along with prosecutors, other defense attorneys, and law enforcement officers – a continued legal education course regarding wrongful conviction. The course kicked off with the study of a case out of North Carolina of two men (19 and 15 at the time of their convictions) who were recently exonerated via DNA evidence.

The men, Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, both confessed to killing an 11-year-old girl in 1983. The question that immediately floated around the room was: why would these two boys confess to a horrific murder if they didn’t actually commit the crime? It’s a fair-enough question and probably the reason the jury that eventually found them guilty of the murder sentenced both of these boys to death. But – in the spirit of Paul Harvey – the “rest of the story” explained how these confessions were coerced.

There was no physical evidence that tied McCollum and Brown to the crime. The lead that was provided to investigators came in the form of a rumor from a fellow schoolmate of the boys who cast suspicion on them because they had recently moved from New Jersey – they were outsiders. Investigators took them in for questioning. Initially, they took in Henry. After five hours of questioning with no lawyer present and with his mother weeping in the hallway, not allowed to see him, Henry told investigators a story of how he and three other boys attacked and killed the girl. He was promised that if he confessed to the crime he would be released to his mother – he was 19 years old. His “statement” was typed out by the investigators and he put his signature to it after the 5-hour interrogation. The last thing Henry said after signing the confession was, “Can I go home now?”

After Henry’s interrogation, Leon was brought in (at 2:30 a.m.). He was told that Henry had confessed and implicated Leon being involved as well. Leon was made similar promises and also told that he would be executed if he did not cooperate. After another lengthy interrogation, Henry also confessed to attacking and killing the girl.

Both men were tried and both men were sentenced to execution.

After 30 years, lawyers from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation began pressing for DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case, which included a cigarette butt found at the murder scene. The DNA was matched – but not to either McCollum or Brown. The DNA came back as a match to Roscoe Artis, a man who lived in a house yards away from the wooded area where the murder took place. Coincidentally, only a few weeks after the murder, Artis confessed to the rape and murder of another 18-year-old girl in the same town. The circumstances surrounding that murder contained striking similarities to the murder that McCollum and Brown were convicted of. Artis was implicated in a number of other murders that occurred in the same area and all under the same or similar circumstances. Based on the DNA testing and the investigation into Roscoe Artis, after 30 years in prison and on death row, McCollum and Brown were exonerated and released.

It’s a story that, as a defense attorney and former prosecutor, I’ve heard before. While not the norm and certainly not common, it’s something I know has happened. The key question though is, “does this still happen?” I was surprised when I overheard one of the members of law enforcement in the room exclaim that, “Oh, this would never happen these days.” While I certainly agree that things have changed and drastically improved since the days of McCollum and Brown, I can’t help but think that the mentality of the impossibility of this happening again is an extremely dangerous one.

I imagine if this case happened today; certainly DNA would be gathered and tested against suspects. But, what happens if there isn’t any DNA at the scene (yes, this could still happen)? What happens if false or speculative accusations or suspicions occur again? What happens if false confessions happen again? In a horrific murder case, I think its naïve for anyone in the field of criminal justice to make a blanked statement that, “this could never happen again.” It can and it will. We have a great justice system but not a perfect one – a human one.

Things have got better. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement personnel have a heightened awareness of the possibility of a wrongful conviction. But, we all must remain vigilant and never put on blinders to the fact that it can happen again.

Kidnapping Defense Lawyers, Fort Worth

Release to a Safe Place: Mitigation of Aggravated Kidnapping

By | Kidnapping

Kidnapping Defense Lawyers, Fort WorthUnder Texas Penal Code § 20.04(d), a kidnapper who voluntarily frees his victim in a safe place reduces his or her punishment level for aggravated kidnapping from a first-degree to a second-degree felony. In construing a “safe place,” Texas courts consider seven factors:

  1. the remoteness of the location,
  2. the proximity of help,
  3. the time of day,
  4. the climate,
  5. the condition of the victim,
  6. the character of the location and surrounding neighborhood, and
  7. the victim’s familiarity with the location or neighborhood.

However, these factors are merely aids in defining what constitutes a “safe place,” which is made on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind the totality of the circumstances.

In Butcher v. State, the appellant kidnapped the nine year-old complainant at knife point while the complainant was walking to school. After putting the complainant in his car, the appellant drove her to his apartment, bound her hands, and put her in his closet. After eight hours, the appellant decided to release the complainant and dropped her back off at the site of the kidnapping.

The appellant argued that because he returned the complainant back to the site of abduction during day-time, he released her in a safe place since the complainant’s mother allowed her “to walk to and from the school bus stop by herself before this incident, [the complainant] did not ask a passing mailman for help after she was released, and that [the complainant’s] mother described [the complainant] as independent.”

Applying the factors to Butcher, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals held, nonetheless, that because the site of the kidnapping was “desolate,” the complainant was released in the middle of the road, the appellant kept the complainant’s cell phone, and the complainant’s family did not have a home phone, the site of the kidnapping was not a safe place.

Moreover, the Texas Court of Criminal appeals distinguished Butcher with Storr v. State. In Storr, the appellant had kidnapped the complainant, but, similarly, released him back at the site of the abduction. The Court held that the area was a safe place because the complainant was college-aged, released at a post office during business hours near his university, and he had available transportation. However, the complainant in Butcher was nine years old, released in the middle of a desolate road, did not have available transportation or a phone, and returned home with nobody there, thus rendering the site of the kidnapping unsafe.

Evidence on Social Media Networks

Introducing Social Media Electronic Evidence at Trial

By | Evidence

Evidence on Social Media NetworksLaying the foundation for the admission of evidence can be tricky.  Often quite technical.  Even hypertechnical.  Depending on what you are trying to admit, you might need affidavits, chain of custody records, etc.  With the advancement of the internet, something trial lawyers of old did not even think about, there is more evidence out there.  Good evidence.  Sometimes really good evidence. Social media sites can provide a wealth of evidence for criminal trial lawyers on both sides of the aisle.

There are Facebook and MySpace friend lists and wall posts that can establish relationships and demonstrate motive or bias. Twitter feeds.  There is also a “check-in” feature on some sites that can show where someone was at a certain time.  What’s more, if you dig deep enough (usually with the help of a subpoena) a person’s private messages on Facebook or MySpace can be a treasure trove of information.  And let’s face it, many people on Facebook and MySpace have absolutely no filter.  Evidence galore.

One of the main problems with using social network media at trial is that ANYONE can create an account purporting to be anyone else.  Just check out the purported profiles for celebrities and you’ll see for yourself.  I seriously doubt Justin Timberlake has time to manage 20 different Facebook and MySpace profiles.

So, with this significant potential for fraud, how does a trial attorney go about authenticating and admitting this evidence at trial.  You might think that you need an affidavit from the social media company and the IP logs from the computer that created the account.  Indeed, you could get that sophisticated if you like.  But you don’t have too.   At least not in Texas.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently decided Tienda v. State, a case that dealt with this issue.  At trial, the State tried to introduce pieces of evidence obtained from the appellant’s purported MySpace accounts.  However, the state did not have IP logs showing which computer created the accounts or the hard drive of appellant’s computer or any other sophisticated computer evidence.  The State took the simple route.  It presented evidence obtained from MySpace showing which email address created the accounts. Then it presented evidence obtained from the MySpace profiles themselves (posts, music, photos, messages), which linked appellant (circumstantially) to the MySpace profiles.  They used a sponsoring witness that had been on the MySpace profiles and had seen the postings and pictures.  The trial court allowed the evidence over defense objection.

The CCA held that “a combination of facts…[was] sufficient to support a finding by a rational jury that the MySpace pages that the State offered into evidence were created by the appellant.” The CCA noted that under TRE 901(a), the proponent of the evidence need only make a threshold showing that would be sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what its proponent claims. “The ultimate question whether an item of evidence is what its proponent claims then becomes a question for the fact-finder – the jury, in a jury trial.” Electronic evidence, the CCA explained, may be authenticated in a number of different ways.  However, “simply showing than an email [or other electronic message] purports to come from a certain person’s email address…or that a text message emanates from a cell phone number assigned to the purported author…without more, has typically been regarded as [insufficient] to support a finding of authenticity.”

Ultimately, the CCA held in Tienda that there is no formula for admission of electronic evidence.  Each case should turn on its particular facts and the amount of circumstantial indicia of authenticity that is present.  The CCA cited a Maryland Court of Appeals opinion and seems to adopt the Maryland Court’s rationale regarding three instances that would satisfy the test for authenticity, but notes that the methods are not exclusive.

[T]he Maryland Court of Appeals recognized that such postings may readily be authenticated, explicitly identifying three non-exclusive methods. First, the proponent could present the testimony of a witness with knowledge; or, in other words, “ask the purported creator if she indeed created the profile and also if she added the posting in question.” That may not be possible where, as here, the State offers the evidence to be authenticated and the purported author is the defendant.  Second, the proponent could offer the results of an examination of the internet history or hard drive of the person who is claimed to have created the profile in question to determine whether that person’s personal computer was used to originate the evidence at issue.  Or, third, the proponent could produce information that would link the profile to the alleged person from the appropriate employee of the social networking website corporation.”

While that State failed, in the Tienda case, to use any of the methods articulated by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the CCA nonetheless held, that based on the circumstantial indicia of authenticity, the State created a prima facie case that would justify submitting the ultimate question of authenticity to the jury.

If you are thinking about introducing social network evidence or other electronic evidence, this case is a good one to read. As always, the war is waged at the trial level, because on appeal, the standard is abuse of discretion, which means, of course, that the trial court’s ruling is given great deference.