Monday, December 08, 2008

"Baffling" harmless error ruling from Houston Court of Appeals

Colin Miller at EvidenceProf Blog says the Houston Court of Appeals issued a correct evidentiary ruling in favor of a criminal defendant, but coupled it with a "baffling" conclusion of "harmless error" - perhaps the favorite pet phrase of Texas appellate courts. In Aguilar v. State, 2008 WL 5058974 (Tex.App.-Houston 2008), Miller says that the Houston 14th CoA was correct in finding that hearsay testimony about a defendant's disputed confession was inadmissible, but that's when the ruling jumps the rails:

So, Aguilar won his appeal, right? Well, actually, the Court of Appeals found the trial court's error to be harmless. And how did it reach this conclusion? Was there forensic evidence supporting the conviction? Did eyewitnesses testify? Did other people hear Aguilar confess? No, no, and no. Instead, according to the court,

"At trial, Luhan testified that [Aguilar] shot him. Further, Officer David Wiese, an officer who responded to the scene of the shooting, testified that he asked Luhan who shot him and Luhan identified [Aguilar]. Therefore, the court admitted the only damaging evidence from Mancias' statement, that appellant shot Luhan, through other sources. Because the same evidence was admitted without objection, the error is harmless."

Really? So, the trial court's error in admitting evidence of Aguilar's alleged confession was harmless solely because the victim identified him twice? Is the Court of Appeals really saying that a victim's identification of the defendant as his assailant is the same as the defendant's confession to the crime? It looks to me as if this is a clear case where the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas needs to reverse and order a new trial.

See Miller's full post for a more detailed analysis.

BLOGVERSATION: Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice comments on the case and calls the phrase "harmless error" the "last refuge of scoundrels," declaring:

To compare the introduction of a confession to the victim's account is, in real trial terms, utterly ludicrous. But with the invocation of those two most nasty and despicable words, harmless error, the appeals court can rule in Wonderland where a blink and a phrase makes everything bad go away. This wasn't the "same evidence," unless the judges of the court have never tried a case and exist in some theoretical world where all evidence carries the same weight and impact.


Soronel Haetir said...

Unfortunetely this ruling is very likely correct from a legal standpoint. Because there was substantial other evidence (admissable rather than overwhelming in a real world sense) that the jury could rely on when reaching the verdict. So don't blame the Texas courts for this one.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Soronel, the EvidenceProf blogger made a compelling argument why the ruling is wrong. You merely state it's correct but don't refute his points. If you have a minute, please read his full analysis and tell me what specifically you disagree with.

Anonymous said...

It is high time for a higher court to review the rulings coming from CCA Courts 1 & 14. It appears if the Judge signs with the State, whether the Judge has read the evidence or not, the CCA automatically signs with the State.

What is the justification for this? Do these Judges belong to the same church, country club, have lunch, dinner together? Something definitely needs to be done to over see these two courts. I am sure there are other Courts in Texas who are just as, and it is hard to find a very descriptive word for these two Courts, so I might just let you draw your own conclusions.

Ron in Houston said...

Baffling? According to some of my friends who were formally clerks, the Justices go around lobbying and trying to find ways to avoid overturning convictions.

It's high time for concerned Texans to get involved in the political process and get these Neanderthal justices out of there.

Ron in Houston said...

Anon 6:57

The problem with "review" of the 1st and 14th is that it end up in the hands of Sharon "we close at 5" Keller and her group of nuts.

Anonymous said...

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is a paper mill.

They believe their goal is to support the lower courts. The clerks find a reason to support the lower courts and the Judges rubber stamp it.

As far as justice and the rule of law is concerned, they couldn't care less.

Soronel Haetir said...


I went and read the linked story and still don't get it. Perhaps the hangup is on the word baffling. To me that would require that the outcome be unexpected, not that it be stupid. This seems like a perfectly straightforward application of harmless error to me, however poor the outcome.

The problem lies with harmless error review, not the particular outcome of this one case.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The only way harmless error works is if you think a confession is no different from a witness ID. They're simply different beasts. Read Scott Greenfield's comment excerpted in the BLOGVERSATION update at the end of the post for why that's the case.