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Erroneous Admission of Character Evidence Harmless?

In many violent crime cases, defendant may claim he or she acted in self-defense.  The prosecution therefore has concerns that the jury may agree with defendant and find defendant not guilty.  Consequently, it is not uncommon for the prosecution to preemptively seek to rebut such a self-defense claim by introducing evidence in its case in chief of the victim’s or victims’ peaceful, nonviolent nature.

The recent U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision from the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena addressed this often controversial area.
In a Nutshell: Character evidence introduced by the prosecution of a victim’s peaceful nature (to anticipatorily rebut a self-defense claim by defendant) may be regarded as harmless error, if error at all, when there is other evidence so strongly pointing to defendant’s guilt that the character evidence introduced can be considered immaterial to a guilty verdict.
The case facts are important to know before addressing the prosecution’s conduct.  In 1995, Gregory Spiros Demetrulias was sentenced to death for stabbing Robert Miller to death after the jury convicted him of first degree murder.  At trial, Demetrulias admitted to killing Miller, but claimed that he did so during a struggle started by Miller when Demetrulias went to Miller’s house to collect a $40 debt Miller owed him.

The prosecution argued that self defense was not an issue.  The prosecution argued that Demetrulias stabbed Miller during the commission of a robbery.  

The prosecution introduced evidence that in 1989, then 35-year-old Demetrulias was living with his parents in Riverside and on the night of the murder drank at least a case of beer and took a handful of prescription medications.  He was staggering and slurring his words.  He was in no condition to drive anywhere, but his mother agreed to drive him to the Round Up Bar.  She then gave him $30 or $40.

Demetrulias had been to the bar many times and, while at the bar, had loaned Robert Miller $40.  Miller also frequented the bar.  Demetrulias looked for Miller, but did not find him, so after having half a beer at the Round Up Bar, he left to walk over to Miller’s house.

When he got to the house, he apparently confronted Miller and stabbed him in the heart.  A witness heard some commotion outside and opened his door to find out what was happening.  He heard Demetrulias loudly say, “Give me your wallet.”  According to the witness, Miller told the witness, “He stabbed me in the heart.  He’s killed me.”  Two other witnesses corroborated this story.  Miller then collapsed.  He had been stabbed with a seven inch blade to his chest and suffered wounds to his face, back and upper arm, too.

Demetrulias then fled to the home of Clarence Wissel, an 82-year-old man Demetrulias’ dad had done business with.  Wissel opened the door to his house with a gun in his hand.  When Demetrulias saw this, he stabbed Wissel three times.  Wissel ran to another room to call the police and Demetrulias then hit Wissel with the phone, took the gun and tied up Wissel with the phone cord.  Demetrulias then ransacked the house, drank eight beers from the refrigerator and took some Valium.  He then walked out of Wissel’s house.

Demetrulias was later arrested and charged with first degree murder.  Prosecutors sought the death penalty based on the special circumstances of first degree murder arising out of a robbery.

During trial, the prosecution briefly presented evidence of Miller’s and Wissel’s non-threatening natures.  Defense counsel objected on the basis of relevance, speculation and foundation, all of which were overruled.  Several weeks later, defense counsel moved to strike the testimony, this time arguing that the testimony was impermissible character evidence.  The judge denied the motion.  Demetrulias was then convicted by the jury and the jury voted to sentence him to death.

On direct appeal, in 2006, the California Supreme Court affirmed Demetrulias’ conviction and sentence.  The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in 2007.  Demetrulias then challenged his conviction in two state court habeas corpus petitions in 2008 and 2010, both of which were denied.  Demetrulias then filed two federal petitions for writ of habeas corpus and the district court denied his petition in 2013.

He then appealed these rulings to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Ninth Circuit began its ruling by reminding that reader that a state court’s evidentiary ruling, even if erroneous, is grounds for federal habeas relief only if it renders the state proceedings so fundamentally unfair as to violate due process.  The admission of character evidence violates due process only if there are no permissible inferences that the jury may draw from the evidence and the evidence was of such quality as it necessarily prevents a fair trial.

Here, the trial court in Riverside County Superior Court found that the admission of the statements about the victims’ character did not rise to the level of constitutional error because the challenged testimony was brief and non-inflammatory.  The testimony did not seek to portray Demetrulias as evil, but rather the victims as non-violent.  Finally, the prosecution’s case against Demetrulias was quite strong and supported by significant direct evidence, leading to the conclusion that the inadmissible statements were not necessary for the conviction, so there was no due process violation.

We present this summary as a good example of how an error in admitting evidence can be rationalized by a trial court as almost trivial when there is significant other evidence that the jury could have relied upon to convict someone.

The citation for the United States Court of Appeal for Ninth Circuit ruling discussed above is Gregory Spiro Demetrulias v. Ronald Davis, Warden (9th Cir., 2021) 14 F. 4th 898.

For more information about character evidence, please click on the following articles:
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