The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday ordered a new trial for Brett Yeiter, who was convicted and sentenced to death in Escambia County in 2019 in the shooting death of his father-in-law.
Mr. Yeiter was charged with capital murder because Mr. Phillips was sitting in his truck at the time that he was shot. At trial, the jury had to decide if this family tragedy rose to the level of capital murder.
Prosecutors introduced during their case-in-chief a statement that Mr. Yeiter made to police a week after the shooting of his father-in-law. The statement contained multiple references to Mr. Yeiter’s prior convictions—including one when he was a teenager—and time he had spent in prison.
Mr. Yeiter’s defense lawyer repeatedly objected, before and during the trial, to the highly prejudicial statement. Evidence of a defendant’s prior bad acts is generally inadmissible, but even though the State gave no legal justification for introducing it, the trial court allowed the entire statement to be presented to the jury, without any limitations.
Mr. Yeiter was convicted of capital murder, and although two members of the jury voted for a life sentence—which would have barred the death penalty in any other state—he was sentenced to death.
EJI appealed Mr. Yeiter’s case, arguing that his conviction and death sentence were illegally obtained when prosecutors were allowed to introduce inadmissible evidence relating to prior convictions.
The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed. It highlighted several reasons why reversal was required in Mr. Yeiter’s case, including that:
- defense counsel preserved the issue for review by objecting to the statement
- the State introduced the statement during its case-in-chief
- the statement “was not admissible for any purpose—and the evidence simply was unnecessary to the State’s case”
- the trial court did not limit the jury’s consideration of the statement in any way, and
- the prosecutor directed the jury to consider the specific page of the statement that referenced Mr. Yeiter’s prior incarceration.
The appellate court rejected the State’s argument that the illegal evidence was harmless.
“Although it is undisputed that Yeiter shot Phillips,” the court reasoned, “the jury had to determine Yeiter’s culpability in shooting Phillips.” The defense argued that Mr. Yeiter acted in self-defense, and in response, the prosecutor told the jury to look specifically at the page in his statement where Mr. Yeiter said he had spent years in prison.
The evidence of prior convictions and incarceration was “inherently prejudicial,” the court concluded. Because “we have no doubt that its admission had ‘almost an irreversible impact upon the minds of the jurors,'” the court reversed Mr. Yeiter’s conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial.