Evidence: Probative Value v. Prejudicial Effect on the Scale of Justice

Submitted by Criminal Defense Attorney, Jeffrey Hark.

State v. Fereirra decided on May, 7 2014 was an appeal to the N.J. Superior Court, Appellate Division, that considered the balance between the probative value of evidence submitted and the prejudicial effect it has on the jury. By prejudicial effect what is meant is that some evidence may cause the jury to consider facts or emotions that are unrelated to the question of fact in the case. This particular case involved a charge of knowing and purposeful murder and some gruesome color photos of the murder victim’s stab wounds. The Defendant argued that the trial court erred in permitting the admission of the photos because:

  1. The Defendant did not contend that there was a stabbing, only that he didn’t do it. So, the photos did not answer any question of fact.
  2. Even if the photos were permissible as evidence they should have been in black and white to lessen prejudice resulting from their graphic nature.

The trial judge anticipated charging the jury on aggravated manslaughter and reckless manslaughter in addition to knowing and purposeful murder, both offenses for which showing repeat stab wounds would be probative. Additionally upon review, the Superior Court, Appellate Division, concluded that the violence of the wounds helped prove the mental state of “knowing” and “purposeful.” It was also found that the photos being in color was not prejudicial enough to require them to be in black and white. Essentially, evidence that has strong probative value will be admissible even if it also conjures up an emotional reaction from the jury.

Though not the main question of this appeal, it should also be noted that the Defendant appealed a consecutive sentence for unlawful possession of a weapon in addition to his murder sentence. That question was remanded to the trial court so the trial judge could place his reasons on the record for imposing the consecutive sentence, because the ability to do so alone is not enough.

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