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United States v. Armajo.

No. 21-8021. 6/23/2022. D.Wyo. Judge Seymour. FRE 404(b)—FRE 403—Assault Resulting in Serious Bodily Injury—Self-Defense Claim.

June 23, 2022

Following a day spent drinking, smoking marijuana, and arguing, defendant’s uncle Eli declared that he had “had enough” of defendant. Eli then pulled the truck they were riding in over so they could “duke it out.” At trial, Eli testified that he struck defendant several times, bloodying defendant’s face and breaking his glasses. According to Eli’s testimony, defendant then pulled out a knife and slashed Eli, stabbing him twice in the leg. Eli further testified he was left bleeding by the side of the road when defendant drove away in the truck. A passerby noticed him, and Eli was treated at the hospital and released the next day.

Defendant was charged with two assault charges. Although defendant did not testify at trial, his counsel cast the stabbing as self-defense. At trial, a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer testified that in 2018, he arrived at the scene of a fight to find defendant covered in blood after being beaten by Eli. The defense also argued that the evidence showed it was Eli who escalated the fight by drawing a knife, and defendant stabbed Eli only because he reasonably believed his life was in danger. The jury ultimately found defendant guilty of assault resulting in serious bodily injury, but not guilty on the charge of assault with a dangerous weapon with intent to do bodily harm.

Before trial, defendant filed a FRE 404(b) notice that he intended to present evidence not only of the 2018 beating but also of an alleged assault by Eli on his disabled brother in 2014 and several alleged assaults on a girlfriend in 2015 and 2017. Following a hearing, the district court ruled that defendant would be allowed to present evidence of Eli’s 2018 assault, but not evidence relating to the alleged assaults against others. While the evidence served a valid purpose under Rule 404(b) because defendant’s state of mind was pivotal, the district court determined that the other assault evidence was barred under Rule 403 because its probative value was substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice. Defendant appealed this ruling.

The Tenth Circuit concluded that defendant met his burden to show self-defense, in that he reasonably believed he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, necessitating an in-kind response. The appeal therefore centered on the evidence the jury never heard. As an initial matter, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court was correct in holding that under FRE 404(b), specific instances of a victim’s violent conduct, when known by a defendant, may be admissible in a self-defense case to prove the defendant’s state of mind.

Next, the Tenth Circuit determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion in applying the FRE 403 balancing test. The court did not err when it considered the lack of similarity of the other alleged assaults as a factor relevant to the probative value analysis. Further, the court’s primary concern about unfair prejudice was valid. Presentation of evidence that Eli had abused a disabled person and a woman would very likely have stirred a strong emotional response from jurors, and the jurors also may have used the evidence to infer that Eli was a violent person and likely to have been the aggressor in this instance, which is precisely the sort of propensity inference that Rule 404(b) forbids. Therefore, because the evidence was likely to be highly prejudicial and of only marginally probative value, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court was justified in excluding the evidence under Rule 403.

The district court’s ruling was affirmed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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