If you were on trial for a misdemeanor assault, and a witness accused you of murder, would that prejudice your case? Would you feel better if the judge told the jury to “disregard” the murder allegation?
That brings us to our case of the day, Hecht v. State, No. 05-07-00431-CR.
Facts- Hecht was charged with misdemeanor assault family violence. The State couldn’t get the victim to testify, so the government put on third party witnesses to build their case.
Problem- One of the witnesses testified that Hecht “had murdered someone.” Hecht was convicted.
What’s the law? An accused is entitled to be tried on the conduct charged, not for a collateral crime. See Tex. R. Evid. 404(b); Campos v. State, 589 S.W.2d 424, 427 (Tex. Crim. App. [Panel Op.] 1979); DeLeon v. State, 77 S.W.3d 300, 310 (Tex. App.-Austin 2001, pet. ref’d).
Remember that cocaine you did in college? Should that be exhibit A in your DWI trial 10 years later?
Turning the defendant into the Zodiac killer guarantees conviction and impugns the right to a fair trial. Of course, lofty ideals like “rights” and a “fair trial” are meaningless sans enforcement.
In Hecht’s case his only hope was to ask the trial judge for a mistrial (Denied). Instead the trial court asked the jury to ignore the allegations that the defendant was a killer preying on the public.
An instruction to disregard isn’t a lobotomy. Judges don’t have those Men In Black memory erase gizmos. Was there any doubt the jury would convict a homicidal maniac of family violence?
Holding- You can unring a bell. This statement was no big deal. Finally, Hecht couldn’t meet the impossible standard for overturning a denied mistrial. Conviction affirmed. No new trial.
Unanswered question- Did Hecht actually murder someone? I’m not sure, the opinion doesn’t say and it shouldn’t matter. The right to a fair trial protects the innocent as well as those convicted of heinous crimes.