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Media Alerts - USA v. Kareem Bailey - Third Circuit
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October 24, 2016
  USA v. Kareem Bailey - Third Circuit
Headline: Admission of highly prejudicial video evidence of a murder in connection with drug conspiracy convictions ruled harmless error due to overwhelming amount of other evidence

Area of Law: Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 403, Harmless Error

Issue(s) Presented: Did the district court commit harmful error in admitting highly prejudicial video evidence of a murder, not committed by defendants, to prove defendants' participation in a drug-trafficking organization?

Brief Summary: The four defendants were convicted for conspiracy and involvement in a heroin trafficking organization in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Video and non-video evidence of a murder committed by an individual other than the four defendants were admitted at trial. This evidence was used to prove the firearm and drug trafficking conspiracy charges of the defendants. The Third Circuit applied Federal Rule of Evidence 403, balancing the probative versus prejudicial effect of the evidence and found the non-video evidence of the murder to be admissible. Invoking the Rule 403 balancing for the video evidence of the murder, the Third Circuit concluded the unfair prejudice substantially outweighed the probative value of the video. The Third Circuit concluded the government had sufficiently proven the murder and its connection to the drug conspiracy through wiretapped phone calls and testimony, and therefore, was using the video only to elicit emotion. However, the Third Circuit found the error to be harmless. The Third Circuit reasoned that due to abundant other evidence that established defendants' guilt, it was not highly probable that the admission of the video altered their convictions. The Third Circuit affirmed the defendants' convictions.

Extended Summary: The four defendants were convicted of a number of charges relating to their involvement and conspiracy to participate in a violent heroin trafficking organization in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Defendants made four main arguments on appeal regarding the District Court's admission of evidence during trial and its refusal to grant a mistrial, which the Third Circuit dismissed with hardly any discussion. The Third Circuit only found their argument regarding the erroneous admission of video evidence of a drug-trafficking related murder to be of merit. However, the Third Circuit ruled that due to the abundance of other evidence available to establish the defendants' guilt, the admission of the video evidence was harmless.
Defendants argued that the prejudicial effect of the admission of evidence of a drug-trafficking related murder substantially outweighed the probative value, thus violating Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Rule 403 allows courts to "exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by unfair prejudice." The court uses a balancing test to evaluate the need for evidence "against the risk of prejudice to the defendant."
Video and non-video evidence of the murder was admitted at trial. The non-video evidence included testimony and recorded conversations regarding the murder. Because both the murder and the conspiracy charges were related to drug trafficking, the Third Circuit concluded the non-video evidence of the murder was more highly probative than prejudicial.
However, the Third Circuit found the admission of the video evidence of the murder to be highly prejudicial, outweighing its probative value. The video depicted an individual shooting the victim directly in the head outside of a crowded restaurant. The Third Circuit stated that the only value the murder video served was to play on the emotions of the jury. Also, the Third Circuit noted that there was an abundance of other evidence that was used to prove the conspiracy and firearm charges against the defendants. Therefore, video evidence of a murder not committed by the defendants was unnecessary. The Third Circuit concluded the prejudicial value of the video evidence of the murder substantially outweighed its probative value and was erroneously admitted.
Regardless of this error, the Third Circuit found the admission to be a harmless error. "An evidentiary error is harmless if it is highly probable that the error did not contribute to the judgment." The Third Circuit ruled the admission of the video to be harmless error due to the amount of other evidence available to prove the defendants' involvement in the drug-trafficking conspiracy and the firearm charges. Therefore, it was not probable that the admission of the video evidence altered the outcome of defendants' case, making the erroneous admission harmless. Defendants' convictions were affirmed.

The full opinion can be found at http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/152128p.pdf

Panel: McKee, Chief Judge, Jordan, and Roth, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: April 28, 2016

Date of Issued Opinion: October 18, 2016

Docket Number: No. 15-2276

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Katherine A. Osevala

Counsel: John M. Holliday, Gina A. Capuano, William R. Spade, Jr., and James R. Murphy, Counsel for Appellants; Mark E. Coyne and Norman Gross, Counsel for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Chief Judge McKee

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mary E. Levy

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 10/24/2016 12:43 PM     3rd Circuit  

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