United States v. Jackson, No. 08-5151-cr (2d Cir. 2009) (McLaughlin, Katzmann, CJJ, Korman, DJ)
Here, the circuit concluded that erroneous introduction of prejudicial “other acts” evidence required a new trial.
Police officers responding to a “shots fired” call in Queens encountered Jackson and others outside the target apartment building. Jackson fled, and has he ran, one of the officers claimed to see what looked like the butt of a gun in his pocket. Jackson was arrested later coming out of a different building. He was unarmed, but the police found a gun in a trash can in the courtyard that separated the two buildings. Jackson was charged with being a felon in possession of that gun.
The next day, the police executed a search warrant in the target apartment and found guns, drugs, bulletproof vests and cash. Jackson was not charged with possessing those items, but at 11:15 on the night before the trial was to begin, the government moved to admit them at trial, claiming it had “eye witnesses” testimony that they were his. The government claimed that the evidence was “necessary background” and would go to “opportunity, plan and lack of mistake.”
The district court admitted it, holding that evidence that Jackson was in an apartment with “that kind of armament” is “highly relevant” and “not unduly prejudicial.” Accordingly, the government called a witness who testified that, on the night Jackson was arrested, he brought her to the target apartment so that she could use the bathroom. This was the government’s only evidence tying him to the apartment. The government also introduced into evidence photographs of all of the contraband found in the apartment, as well as four actual guns.
The Evidence Was Erroneously Admitted
The circuit reversed, finding that the evidence from the apartment was “not admissible for any proper purpose.” First, it was not proper background evidence, as it was “not particularly helpful to explain the crime.” The only crime that Jackson was charged with occurred on the street, not in the apartment, and the government did not need to introduce the contents of the apartment to explain why the police were at the building, why they pursued Jackson after he bolted, or why he was charged with possessing a gun.
The court also rejected the government’s argument that the evidence was relevant to Jackson’s opportunity or motive. These matters were not really at issue at trial, since Jackson’s defense was that he did not have a gun at all. Moreover, even though evidence that Jackson had ready and contemporaneous access to guns was relevant circumstantial evidence that he possessed the gun he was charged with, the evidence the government introduced went “far beyond what was necessary for this purpose,” and the government never argued at trial that the evidence showed opportunity.
The Error Was Not Harmless
This case presented the perfect storm of harmfulness: a weak case, improper use by the government, and truly baffling limiting instructions.
First, the circuit found the government’s case to be “by no means overwhelming.” The officer who said he saw what looked like the but of a gun in Jackson’s pocket admitted on cross-examination that he was not sure it was a gun. No one saw Jackson put anything in the trash can where the gun was found, and the gun had no fingerprints on it.
The government also misused the evidence by “invit[ing] the jury to infer that Jackson at least associated with dangerous drug dealers equipped with an array of weapons who operated a narcotics business out of a residential apartment building.” In its summation the government argued that the evidence showed “exactly what was going on that day” and “who the defendant really is.”
Finally, the district court’s limiting instructions were terrible. The court told the jury that the case had “nothing to do with a narcotics charge” and that the jury should not consider the drugs “for any reason whatsoever” because they were being admitted simply to show what was found in the apartment. The circuit concluded that there was an overwhelming probability that the jury would be unable to follow an instruction to ignore the drug evidence. Moreover, the instruction only mentioned the drugs, not the guns, leaving open the possibility that the “jury might have believed that the weapons [found in the apartment] … could contribute to a finding that Jackson possessed the gun” he was charged with. A jury is not likely to be able to follow an instruction that evidence is “merely background” where the evidence is highly prejudicial and the government puts it “at the center of the trial.” Since that was true here, the error was not harmless.