A Season for Dissent
Blawging's Dirty Little Secret

Eleventh Circuit has "Thomas More Moment"

Thomas More moment

1:  when someone, usually a judge or prosecutor, refuses to violate the law, even if necessary to catch a bad man.
2:  when someone refuses to act against his conscience, even when it could cost him his life or liberty.

Today the Eleventh Circuit, in an opinion authored by Judge Tjoflat, reversed a conviction predicated upon an erroneous evidentiary ruling.  United States v. Matthews, No. 03-15528 (11th Cir. Jun. 8, 2005).  In Matthews, the defendant was charged on the theory that he was the leader of a cocaine trafficking ring.  But the case against him was pitifully weak: the only evidence against was the testimony of coke dealers who all received reduced sentences for helping put Mr. Matthews away.

The only other way to tie Matthews to cocaine was to use a 1991 drug conviction against him.  The trial court allowed it, and Matthews was convicted.  On appeal, the government told the panel to affirm the conviction, despite the clearly erroneous ruling because "He's dangerous! ... That man's bad!"  But Judge Tjoflat, as Thomas More would have, held otherwise:

What the Government really means is that it “needed the extrinsic evidence to satisfy its heavy burden” because it feared that the jurors would not believe its witnesses at all. The Government wanted the jury to infer that Matthews was dealing drugs 1991 and was still dealing drugs in 1999, 2000, and 2001.  This is precisely the inference the law does not allow. See, e.g., People v. Zackowitz (N.Y. 1930) (Cardozo, C.J.) (“If a murderous propensity may be proved against a defendant as one of the tokens of his guilt, a rule of criminal evidence, long believed to be of fundamental importance for the protection of the innocent, must be first declared away.”)

At oral argument, the Government essentially argued that evidence of prior drug dealing is admissible whenever a defendant pleads not guilty to conspiracy distribute drugs. The position taken seemed to be that the plea itself renders such evidence automatically admissible—subject, perhaps, to exclusion under Rule 403—regardless of the theory of the defense or the other evidence presented by the Government. This cannot be the law, and we take this opportunity to hold emphatically that it is not the law.

Slip op. at 34-35.  Cases like these still make my eyes well up.