Impeachment with a prior conviction of an infamous crime, in Maryland

In Deltavia Cure v. State of Maryland, No. 135 Sept. Term 2010 (Md., Aug. 16, 2011), the Court of Appeals discussed the process by which a trial court evaluates whether to allow a witness’s prior conviction for an infamous crime to be used against him for impeachment purposes.

The trial court must first look to Maryland Rule 5-609. The initial considerations for admissibility are clear. There are two categories for what convictions may be used to impeach a witness’s credibility (1) “infamous crimes&##8221; and (2) “other crimes relevant to the witness’s credibility.” Infamous crimes include treason, common law felonies, and other offenses classified as crimen falsi. If the crime does not fall within one of these two categories, then it is inadmissible and the analysis ends. If the conviction falls within one of these two categories then the second step for the proponent is to establish that the conviction is not more than 15 year old, that it was not reversed on appeal, and that it was not subject to a pardon or pending appeal.

Once these factors are satisfied, it is then for the court to determine that the probative value of the prior conviction outweighs the prejudicial impact it may have on the fact-finder against the witness or objecting party. See State v. Westpoint, 404 Md. 455, 477-78, 947 A.2d 519, 532-33 (2008) (quoting State v. Giddens, 335 Md. 205, 213-14, 642 A.2d 870, 874 (1994), by applying the five prongs set forth in Jackson v. State, 340 Md. 705, 668 A.2d 8 (1995). It is reversible error if the trial court does not apply the balancing test. Md. Rule 5-609(a)(2).

The five factors the court must consider include: (1) the impeachment value of the prior crime; (2) the point in time of the conviction and the defendant’s subsequent history; (3) the similarity between the past crime and the current charged crime; (4) the importance of the defendant’s testimony; and (5) the centrality of the defendant’s credibility. Jackson, 340 Md. at 717, 668 A.2d at 14.

If a crime is “infamous” or “relevant to the witness?s credibility” it has impeachment valued because the says as much. Second, the more recent a conviction, the more probative value it has for impeachment purposes. Conversely, the further in the past the crime is the weaker its relevance. However, in a case where the conviction is equally as recent as it is old, time is weighed to be neutral. Third, the closer the similarity between the past crime and the current crime/conduct at issue weighs in favor of admissibility. The fourth and fifth prongs as to the importance of the witness’s testimony and the centrality of the witness’s credibility are considered jointly. Where the credibility of the witness is the central issue, the probative value of the impeachment is great, and thus weighs heavily against the danger of unfair prejudice and in favor of admissibility of the prior conviction.

Applying the above analysis, the Court determined that arson is an infamous crime, that the conviction was eight years old, and that the arson conviction was wholly dissimilar to the drug charge he was on trial for, thereby reducing its prejudicial impact. Once of the critical considerations was that the jury had to determine whom to believe as there was conflicting testimony from the defendant and witnesses. Thus, the defendant’s testimony and his credibility were a central issue, such that factors four and five weight heavily in favor of admissibility. The Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling of the trial court finding that it was proper to admit the criminal defendant’s prior arson conviction for impeachment purposes.

Categories: Maryland