United States v. Yahweh Ben Yahweh
792 F. Supp. 104 (S.D. Fla. 1992)
 

ROETTGER, J. ORDER:

Violent crime cases are the exception in federal courts. The instant case is arguably the most violent case ever tried in a federal court: the indictment charges the sixteen defendants on trial with 14 murders by means such as beheading, stabbing, occasionally by pistol shots, plus severing of body parts such as ears to prove the worthiness of the killer. Plus, they are charged with arson of a slumbering neighborhood by molotov cocktails with the perpetrators under orders to wait outside the innocent victims' homes wearing ski masks and brandishing machetes to deter the victims from fleeing the flames.

In the course of the trial, the Government sought to introduce into evidence medical examiners' photographs of the victims. Defendants objected to the admission of these photographs into evidence on the grounds that the photographs were not relevant pursuant to Fed. R. Evid. 401 and prejudicial in effect pursuant to Fed. R. Evid. 403. Specifically, the Defendants contend that the size of the photographs, which are roughly 30 X 40 inches, were designed to inflame the passions of the jury.

The relevance of these photographs is without question. Photographs of homicide victims are relevant in showing the identity of the victim, the manner of death, the murder weapon, or any other element of the crime. In addition to identifying the victims and the means of death, the photographs in this case corroborate the testimony of witnesses, Lloyd Clark, Ricardo Woodside and Robert Rozier, whose credibility is central to the government's case.

With reference to the beating of Aston Green, Lloyd Clark testified that he "saw somebody jump on his [Aston Green's] chest.'' Further, Ricardo Woodside testified that there were "people jumping up and down on his chest....'' Government Exhibit 7 shows the outline of a footprint on the chest of Aston Green. Dr. Charles Wetli, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Aston Green, stated that this injury was consistent with someone jumping on the deceased's chest.

Ricardo Woodside testified concerning the decapitation of Aston Green. He estimated that he heard approximately fifteen to thirty "chops'' as if a knife was coming down on flesh. He also heard the attention-riveting statement: "Damn. This blade is dull.'' This testimony at first seemed incredible. However, it was corroborated by Government Exhibit 9. This exhibit clearly shows that a number of "chops'' were necessary for the decapitation.

Prior to the admission of Exhibits 7 & 9 in the enlarged size, this court reviewed the same photographs in the 8" X 10" size. The latter did not show the detail necessary to corroborate the witnesses' testimony. The footprint could not be seen clearly on the 8" X 10" of Exhibit 7 and the number of lacerations on the top of Aston Green's torso were not clearly visible on the 8" X 10" of Exhibit 9. Discussing the enlargements of Aston Green, Dr. Wetli testified, and the court concurs, that 8" X 10" photographs did not reveal the contusions on the deceased's face, the machete marks on the neck or the footprint on the chest. The enlarged photographs clearly show the footprint and that numerous "chops'' were necessary for the decapitation.

Relevant evidence can be excluded pursuant to Fed. R. Evid. 403 if "its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice....'' The subject matter of the photographs in questiondecapitation, slit throat, removed ears, repeated stabbing, and gun shot woundsis both difficult to view as well as disturbing and distasteful. However, so were the crimes alleged. Murder, particularly "murder most foul'' by methods such as decapitation or stabbing and the removal of body parts, is inherently offensive. However, these exhibits are not flagrantly or deliberately gruesome depictions of the crimes.(1)2

After careful review of the exhibits and the medical examiners' testimony and objections, the court found no distortion, exercised its discretion and overruled the objections.

In United States v. McRae, 593 F.2d 700 (5th Cir. 1979), the Fifth Circuit held that:

Relevant evidence is inherently prejudicial; but it is only unfair prejudice, substantially outweighing probative value, which permits exclusion of relevant matter under Rule 403. Unless trials are to be conducted on scenarios, on unreal facts tailored and sanitized for the occasion, the application of Rule 403 must be cautious and sparing.... It is not designed to permit the court to "even out'' the weight of evidence, to mitigate a crime.... Id. at 707.

Defendants argue that the gruesome or prejudicial effect of the photographs are heightened by the size of the photographs.... Defense counsel argued that an analytical chart could show specifically where injuries occurred and the extent of the injuries. In comparing the utility of an enlarged photograph as opposed to a chart, Dr. Wetli responded "[b]ecause the picture is much better than a diagram and my words.... [It] just depicts exactly what it is, what is there.... If you want a jury to have a true understanding of what I saw and how it matches up, not just with those marks but other photographs as well as what I presume will be other evidence entered, therefore the complete picture that is going to be given, then the pictures are extremely helpful.'' Further, he stated "diagrams will misstate the issue in that there is no blood and instruments and so forth; but the truth is the truth and the injuries are there.''

Displaying an enlarged photograph while the medical examiner testified to facts illustrated in the photograph enabled all members of the jury simultaneously to follow the witness' testimony. Having seen many juries in trials struggle with a witness' presentation when 8" X 10" photographs are used, it is clearly easier for the jury to capture the substance of the testimony without straining to view the photograph. For twenty years, this court has stood by the jury box to observe as witnesses testified in front of the jury box concerning exhibits being published to the jury there. In this court's view the larger 30;dp ;ts 40;dp pictures were the right size to illustrate and clarify the witness' testimony; in fact, even the 16;dp ;ts 20;dp size was inadequately small by comparison.

The probative value of the enlarged autopsy photographs substantially outweighs the danger of unfair prejudice and therefore the objections to the photographs are overruled. Although enlargements may magnify certain wounds, they have by no means distorted the nature of the wounds in this case. This court has attempted to keep the photographs to about life-size. However, in certain instances larger blow ups have been permitted as necessary to illustrate the medical examiner's testimony, such as with reference to severed ears and a severed trachea and carotid artery. Even with an enlargement larger than life-size, the court found the enlargement did not distort the subject. Additionally, arguments as to size cut both ways. Photographs many times smaller than life-size do minimize the wounds inflicted, but, as was the case with the footprint in Exhibit 7, may not accurately reflect injuries which were present.



1. 2. The Court notes that the Government has made an effort to limit the introduction of gruesome evidence. Although permissible under United States v. De Parias, 805 F.2d 1447 (11th Cir. 1986), the Government chose not to introduce the autopsy photographs of the decomposed body of Lyle Bellinger. The Government also represents that it has the severed ear of the victim, Raymond Kelly, but it was not offered. This is not to suggest that these would have been admissible if offered.

 


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