Prosecutors are required to authenticate fingerprint evidence, but that doesn’t give the state a free pass to introduce information that suggests to the jury that a defendant has a criminal history, according to the state Court of Appeals.

A three-judge panel for the court unanimously reversed a Lexington County trial judge’s ruling that the state’s expert, a supervisor at the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, could authenticate a defendant’s fingerprint card by telling jurors that it was created more than a decade earlier at Kirkland Correctional Institution, a state prison in Columbia.

The defendant, Johnnie Lawson, who was on trial for breaking into a vehicle, agreed to stipulate to the authenticity of the card. But Circuit Judge Knox McMahon held that the state didn’t have to accept the stipulation. Then he denied Lawson’s objection to the Kirkland-related testimony, finding that the prosecution’s expert had not introduced Lawson’s prior criminal history into evidence by telling jurors that the card came from a prison.

The jury found Lawson guilty and he was sentenced to five years in prison.

In reversing Knox, Court of Appeals Judge Paula Thomas wrote that the expert’s “references to Kirkland indicated to the jury that [Lawson] had been incarcerated at some point.” She also found that by telling jurors that the card was more than 10 years old, the expert had “excluded any possibility the jury would conclude [Lawson’s] time at Kirkland was related to the crime for which he was on trial.”

Thomas concluded that the expert’s testimony violated the South Carolina Rules of Evidence, which prohibit admitting evidence of prior crimes. And she held that Knox had abused his discretion in admitting the testimony.

Thomas wrote in the June 6 decision that prosecutors “may not bootstrap improper character evidence into admissible testimony by simply claiming it is offered to authenticate other evidence.”

She also noted that the state’s case against Lawson was circumstantial—the victim never saw the suspect’s face and gave police a vague description of the perpetrator—which she found enhanced the prejudicial effect of the Kirkland testimony.

“Under these circumstances, with limited evidence linking the defendant to the crime, the evidence suggesting [Lawson] had a prior criminal record was prejudicial because it could have influenced the jury’s verdict,” Thomas wrote.

Whether the state will challenge the decision remains to be seen. An attempt to speak with a spokesperson for the state Attorney General’s Office was unsuccessful

Senior Assistant Attorney General David Spencer stressed in the state’s appellate brief that the prosecution should not have been forced to “water down its case” against Lawson and “accept a vague stipulation.” He stressed that Lawson had only offered to stipulate to the admission of the card, not that the fingerprints were his or that they matched a print found at the crime scene.

Spencer also contended that the Kirkland reference had not prejudiced Lawson, writing that it

“simply is unfathomable that the jury failed to believe the fingerprint evidence but convicted Lawson anyway because he may or may not have been an inmate at a correctional facility years ago.”

Lawson’s appellate defender, Laura Baer of Columbia, did not respond to an interview request. She wrote in Lawson’s appellate brief that the state’s expert’s reference to Kirkland “constituted improper character evidence because Lawson did not first put his character at issue.” She also argued that the solicitor was required to accept Lawson’s stipulation as to the authenticity of the fingerprint card.

But the Court of Appeals found that the state “could have accepted” Lawson’s stipulation offer. Or the expert in question could have told the jury that the state maintains a database of all the fingerprints of everyone arrested in South Carolina, which would have been sufficient to authenticate Lawson’s fingerprint card without hinting at his prior criminal record.

“The court made an important note that there were other ways” to authenticate the fingerprint card, said Dayne Phillips, a Columbia-based attorney and president of the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“Just because you have to follow one rule of evidence doesn’t mean you get to disregard the others,” he added.

The 10-page decision is State v. Lawson (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-056-18). An opinion digest is available at sclawyersweekly.com.

Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz

 



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