Bingaman v. State
In Bingaman v. State, 76 P.3d 398 (Alaska App. 2003), the Court extensively analyzed Evidence Rule 404(b)(4), and we outlined the factors that trial judges must consider when deciding whether evidence of other crimes of domestic violence should be admitted under this rule.
To summarize that lengthy discussion, we held that trial judges must determine whether the State's offered evidence tends to prove a character trait that is truly relevant to determining the likelihood that the defendant committed the crime currently charged. Id. at 409-412.
If the trial judge finds that the evidence is relevant, the judge must then weigh the probative value of the evidence against its potential for unfair prejudice or confusion of issues. Id. at 415-16.
The Court cautioned that even though an act might qualify as "domestic violence" under the expansive definition codified in AS 18.66.990 (and incorporated by reference in Evidence Rule 404(b)(4)), trial judges must be vigilant to control the admission of other-crimes evidence under Rule 404(b)(4).
Judges must carefully gauge whether the other crime that the State proposes to prove actually supports the inference for which it is offered under Rule 404(b)(4): the inference that a person who has committed this other crime is a person who characteristically engages in this type of crime, and is therefore more likely to have committed the crime being litigated. (Id. at 412-13.)
The Court held that when a trial judge allows the State to introduce evidence of a defendant's bad acts under Evidence Rule 404(b)(2), (b)(3), or (b)(4), the defendant is entitled to a cautionary instruction -- an instruction informing the jury of the limited purposes of this evidence, and expressly cautioning the jurors that they are not to convict the defendant based solely on these prior acts. Id. at 416-17.
The Court explained how Rule 404(b) evidence should be admitted in light of Evidence Rule 402 (barring the admission of irrelevant evidence) and Evidence Rule 403 (under which we determine if the probative value of evidence is outweighed by its prejudicial effect).
The Court listed six factors which a trial judge must consider when deciding whether evidence may properly be admitted under Rule 404(b):
How strong is the government's evidence that the defendant actually committed the other acts?
What character trait do the other acts tend to prove?
Is this character trait relevant to any material issue in the case? How relevant? And how strongly do the defendant's other acts tend to prove this trait?
Assuming that the offered character evidence is relevant to a material issue, how seriously disputed is this material issue? Does the government need to offer more evidence on this issue? And is there less prejudicial evidence that could be offered on this point? In other words, how great is the government's need to offer evidence of the defendant's other acts? Or, if evidence of one or more other acts has already been admitted, how great is the government's need to offer additional evidence of the defendant's other acts?
How likely is it that litigation of the defendant's other acts will require an inordinate amount of time?
And finally, how likely is it that evidence of the defendant's other acts will lead the jury to decide the case on improper grounds, or will distract the jury from the main issues in the case?
The Court further held that "whenever the government offers evidence of a defendant's other bad acts under Evidence Rules 404(b)(2), (b)(3), or (b)(4), trial judges must conduct a balancing under Evidence Rule 403 and must explain their decision on the record."
The Court established requirements for a trial court to apply when admitting evidence of other crimes of domestic violence under Evidence Rule 404(b)(4). According to Bingaman, in cases involving domestic violence, "evidence of other crimes involving domestic violence by the defendant against the same or another person ... is admissible."
However, we held that the admission of such evidence is only constitutional if it is limited: "The trial judge must still ensure that the defendant is tried for the crime currently charged -- not for the things that the defendant might have done on other occasions, and not for the kind of person that the defendant might be."
This required the trial court to explicitly conduct the balancing test required under Evidence Rule 403 and explain that analysis on the record.
Furthermore, if the court decided the evidence was admissible, the court was required to instruct the jury that the evidence of the defendant's other acts is not sufficient, standing alone, to justify the defendant's conviction. (Id. at 416-17.)