On Friday, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously ordered a new trial for EJI client Derek Horton, who was convicted and sentenced to death after Mobile County prosecutors improperly presented irrelevant and prejudicial facts to the jury.
Derek Horton was 18 years old and suffering from mental health problems when he was arrested and charged with capital murder in the shooting death of a woman who lived nearby.
As the criminal appeals court put it, the “State’s evidence was not ironclad, or even overwhelming.” Prosecutors produced no witnesses or direct evidence placing Mr. Horton at the victim’s home at the time of the crime. His fingerprints were not found on any of the household items found at the bottom of an embankment outside the home, presumably thrown there by the murderer.
Mr. Horton’s palm print and DNA were found on the victim’s vehicle, which was discovered about 100 miles from where the crime occurred, but neither his fingerprints nor DNA was found on any of the items from the vehicle that were found near the roadway, including the murder weapon. The victim’s DNA was not found on any of Mr. Horton’s clothing, the court found.
“To buttress its weak case,” the court wrote, “the State presented substantial evidence regarding multiple collateral crimes and acts that . . . painted Horton as a drug-using, drug-dealing, violent criminal.” Mr. Horton’s former girlfriend testified that a month before the offense he had violently assaulted her and had used cocaine. The State introduced evidence that Mr. Horton was investigated for a domestic violence assault against his mother over a month before the crime, and that he had used marijuana and sold drugs.
The Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that this evidence “had an almost irreversible impact on the minds of the jurors, drawing their minds away from the main issue, and leaving them with the impression that Horton was a dangerous career criminal who must have committed the murder.” This is precisely why evidence of collateral bad acts is not allowed in a criminal trial. The rule against allowing this type of evidence is meant “to protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial by preventing convictions based on the jury’s belief that the defendant is a ‘bad’ person or one prone to commit criminal acts,” the decision states.
Such evidence may be admitted for limited purposes only if the State can show it is relevant, and only if the jury is properly instructed about how to use the evidence. The appeals court found that the State failed to make the necessary showing to admit this evidence against Mr. Horton, and neither was the jury properly instructed in this case. Rather, the court held, “[t]he collateral acts were superfluous to the State’s case and served no purpose other than to paint Horton as a drug-using, drug-dealing criminal who had a propensity to commit violent crimes against women.”
The court concluded that the improper admission of this evidence rose to the level of plain error and requires a new trial because it “had an unfair prejudicial impact on the jury’s deliberations and adversely affected Horton’s substantial rights.” It reversed Mr. Horton’s convictions and death sentence.