"You are under oath, sir!" . . . It might be error for the judge to admonish your witness, so object

Eddie Williams v. United States, No. 12-CF-1837 (Decided January 15, 2015)

Players: Associate Judges Thompson and Easterly, Senior Judge Ruiz. Opinion by Senior Judge Ruiz. Ian A. Williams for Mr. Williams. Trial Judge: Florence Y. Pan.

Facts: Mr. Williams approached his neighbor, D.J., and threatened to shoot him. D.J. and his friend testified that they saw Mr. Williams reach into his jeans and reveal what looked like the handle of a gun. This was not the first hostile interaction between Mr. Williams and D.J. D.J. testified that about a year earlier, Mr. Williams put what looked like a toy gun to his head and tried to “jack” him. After the encounter, Mr. Williams taunted D.J. on a regular basis. Defense counsel objected to the admission of this line of evidence as past bad acts propensity evidence.

Issue 1: Did the trial court abuse its discretion by admitting evidence of Mr. Williams threatening and taunting D.J. and possessing what looked like a gun a year before the crime?

Holding: While the trial court erred in exercising its discretion by admitting the evidence, any error was not substantial, because the court gave a limiting instruction as to how the jury could use the evidence, the jury did not appear to give the evidence great weight given that they acquitted Mr. Williams of the armed offenses, and the weakness of the evidence connecting the two weapons was pointed out during closing. Thus, there was no abuse of discretion.

Issue 2: Did the trial court commit plain error in reminding D.J. that he was under oath and directing him to answer counsel’s questions truthfully, thereby discrediting D.J.’s exculpatory testimony?

Holding: The DCCA has never addressed whether it is an abuse of discretion for the trial judge to remind a witness to tell the truth. The Court noted, however, that other courts have allowed such statements, although they run the risk of implying that the judge thinks the witness might not be telling the truth. The Court did not decide the issue, instead holding that the error here, if any, would not have been obvious to the judge, thus succumbing to plain error review.

Of Note:

  • The Court left open the question of whether it is an abuse of discretion for a trial judge to remind a witness to tell the truth.Counsel should make sure to object to any such admonitions.DSH