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Arizona Court Affirms Manslaughter Conviction After Rejecting Defendant’s Request to Admit Prior Bad Acts of the Victim

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued an opinion in an Arizona manslaughter case involving a defendant’s claim that he should have been entitled to fully inform the jury about the prior aggressive actions taken by the victim against the defendant’s pregnant step-daughter. Ultimately, the court rejected the defendant’s claim, affirming his conviction.

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff lived with his wife and step-daughter and her boyfriend, M.R. One day, the defendant got into an argument with M.R., and pulled out a gun. The defendant put the gun down, but then the two men got into a subsequent argument, and the defendant shot M.R., killing him. The defendant claimed that M.R. tried to wrestle the gun from him; however, no other family members were present to corroborate the defendant’s account.

The defendant was charged with manslaughter. Before trial, the defendant sought to introduce evidence of the prior aggressive and abusive actions of M.R. toward his step-daughter, who was pregnant at the time several of the incidents took place. The court reviewed the defendant’s request, and determined that the jury should be permitted to hear about the incidents, but not that the defendant’s step-daughter was pregnant at the time. The court explained that “the fact of the pregnancy is prejudicial and raises a greater possibility that the jury would be misled by focusing on the unborn baby as opposed to the Defendant’s state of mind.” Thus, the court allowed evidence of the incidents, but left out the fact that the step-daughter was pregnant.

The defendant appealed his conviction on several grounds, one of which was the denial of his request to admit the fact that his step-daughter was pregnant when M.R. physically abused her. The court affirmed the lower court’s ruling and the defendant’s conviction, explaining that even when evidence under Rule 404(b) is admissible, it must still pass the other evidentiary hurdles. Relevant to this case was Rule 403, which states that a court “may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of” unfair prejudice.

Here, the court noted that the fact that the defendant’s step-daughter was pregnant at the time M.R. abused her was “particularly inflammatory,” and did not impact the “probative essence” of the evidence. Thus, the court agreed with the prosecution and lower court that the pregnancy evidence was properly excluded from the jury’s consideration.

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