In The News

In The News

Monday, January 12, 2015

Michigan Court of Appeals: Gang Expert Who Says Accused Acted "Like a Gang Member" Tainted the Verdict: Battle Creek Case Gets New Trial

By Michael Nichols
Categories: Michael J. Nichols, Drug Crimes

The Michigan Court of Appeals has overturned a conviction for second-degree murder and granted a new trial – holding that the testimony of the prosecutor's “gang expert” impermissibly tainted the verdict. In the case: “People v. Kaleb Raynardo-Charles Hampton," the Court of Appeals granted the defendant a new trial because of the improper testimony of the government’s “gang expert.” The Court ruled that the testimony violated a rule of evidence (MRE 404(a)) that prohibits opinions that a person acted in conformity with a character trait. In this case, the prosecutor used the testimony "... to show that, on a particular occasion, a gang member acted in conformity with character traits commonly associated with gang members.” People v. Bynum, 496 Mich. 610, 615-616, 852 N.W.2d 570 (2014).

The Court of Appeals pointed out that the officer’s pronouncements of the defendant’s guilt permeated his testimony. The Court pointed to three specific instances in which the officer testifying as a “gang expert” crossed the line. First, the officer testified that the defendants “purposely” entered enemy territory to “avenge some sort of gang disrespect they felt was done…” Second, that the defendants drove “into this hornet’s nest…purposely as gang members attempting to avenge disrespect.” Finally, that the defendants “were just intending to shoot at that entire neighborhood that was full of rival gang members to prove a point.” The Court went on to reiterate that even in the analogous context when the expert testimony “begins to resemble the defendant’s circumstances and characteristics too closely,” it impermissibly approximates “substantive evidence of guilt.” People v. Murray, 234 Mich.App. 46, 55, 593 N.W.2d 690 (1999).

It is fundamental to our justice system that the jury alone decides guilt or innocence. The Court of Appeals pointed out that experts are not allowed to give their opinions as to guilt or innocence for two main reasons. First, their opinions are unnecessary because the ultimate decision of guilt or innocence is the jury’s alone. Second, the opinion of a police officer testifying as a “gang expert” is highly prejudicial, and therefore inadmissible under MRE 403. The “gang expert’s” testimony is limited to general characteristics of gang culture for appropriate purposes. Conduct in conformity with general gang characteristics is not an appropriate purpose, and therefore the Court of Appeals held it is inadmissible.

Michigan Criminal Defense Attorney Mike Nichols, an adjunct professor of forensic evidence at the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School says "The Court of Appeals got this one right. It is encouraging to see the Court recognize the power of testimony from so called 'gang experts,' and limiting such testimony when appropriate." If you have been charged with a crime and need lawyers with knowledge, skill and the drive to stay on the cutting edge of the law, call the Nichols Law Firm today and speak with attorneys who are committed to results at 517-432-9000.

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Peer Recognition

Mike Nichols is a national leader in drunk driving defense. He is a member of the Forensic Committee and Michigan delegate to the National College for DUI Defense. He is also a Sustaining Member of the College. Nichols is also a founding member of the Michigan Association of OWI Attorneys; a member of the American Chemical Society; an associate member of he American Academy of Forensic Science, Adjunct Professor of Forensic Evidence in Criminal Law and OWI Law and Practice at Cooley Law School. He is also author of the West OWI Practice book and several chapters in other books on science and the law.

Mike Nichols is recognized by his peers in Michigan as a “SuperLawyer” in DUI/Criminal Defense. Nichols has also been asked to speak at conferences by groups such as the NCDD; Various Bar Associations in other states.