Silk Stockings

 

PEOPLE v. ADAMSON

27 Cal. 2d 478, 165 P.2d 3 (1946), aff'd, 332 U.S. 46 (1947)

[Defendant was charged with murder and burglary. He pleaded not guilty and was tried and convicted of murder and one count of burglary. The defendant did not testify at trial and produced no witnesses.]

The body of Stella Blauvelt, a widow 64 years of age, was found on the floor of her Los Angeles apartment on July 25, 1944. The evidence indicated that she died on the afternoon of the preceding day....

[The defendant admitted that Stella Blauvelt was murdered but contended that the evidence was not sufficient to identify him as the perpetrator.]

The tops of three women's stockings identified as having been taken from defendant's room were admitted in evidence.... The stocking parts were not all of the same color. At the end of each part, away from what was formerly the top of the stocking, a knot or knots were tied. When the body of the deceased was found, it did not have on any shoes or stockings. There was evidence that on the day of the murder deceased had been wearing stockings. The lower part of a silk stocking with the top part torn off was found lying on the floor under the body. No part of the other stocking was found. There were other stockings in the apartment, some hanging in the kitchen and some in drawers in a dressing alcove, but no other parts of stockings were found. None of the stocking tops from defendant's room matched with the bottom part of the stocking found under the body....

How should you go about analyzing the relevance of the stocking evidence in this case? What methodology should you employ in deciding relevance in general?

Suppose that the prosecution rests its case after proving the discovery and condition of the body and introducing the stocking evidence, over the defendant's objection. Defendant then moves for a directed verdict. If the court grants defendant's motion, are the rulings on the admissibility of the stocking evidence and the motion for a directed verdict compatible? Consider the court's opinion:

To be admissible, evidence must tend to prove a material issue in the light of human experience. The stocking tops found in defendant's room were relevant to identify defendant because their presence on his dresser and in a drawer thereof among other articles of wearing apparel with a knot or knots tied in the end away from what was formerly the top of the stocking indicates that defendant had some use for women's stocking tops. This interest in women's stocking tops is a circumstance that tends to identify defendant as the person who removed the stockings from the victim and took away the top of one and the whole of the other. Although the presence of the stocking tops in defendant's room was not by itself sufficient to identify defendant as the criminal, it constituted a logical link in the chain of evidence. Evidence that tends to throw light on a fact in dispute may be admitted. The weight to be given such evidence will be determined by the jury.

It is contended that the admission of the stocking tops deprived defendant of a fair trial and therefore denied him due process of law.

The judgments and the order denying a new trial are affirmed.

 

Evidence concerning the defendant carries with it a greater risk of prejudice than evidence from the scene of the crime. Even though the stocking tops do not match the bottoms, they tend to show that the defendant had a use for stocking tops. Apparently, so did the killer. A person investigating this crime would clearly be interested in the stocking tops found in the defendant's room. In Rule 401's terminology, the presence of the stocking tops makes it more likely that Adamson was the killer than had the stockings not been found. Thus, the evidence is relevant. The problem is that the evidence may seem much more relevant than it is, and therefore may be prejudicial.

Two points can be made about the risk of overvaluing evidence about the defendant. First, a trial differs in a crucial way from an investigation. At the outset of an investigation, everyone is suspect. The investigation consists of a process of narrowing down the universe of suspects. It involves false starts and blind alleys. If successful, the investigation narrows to a single person, who is prosecuted. By contrast, at the outset of a trial there is only one suspect, the defendant. Evidence concerning the defendant that appears to connect him to the scene may seem to be more significant than it really is because it appears in a context that excludes the rest of the possible suspects. This is much less true for evidence found at the scene of the crime, and therefore the relevance of evidence at the scene of the crime is subjected to much less rigorous scrutiny than evidence concerning the defendant. Put another way, evidence from the scene of the crime would come to the attention of anyone who was trying to figure out what happened. Evidence about the defendant may come to the attention of the factfinder only because the defendant has been selected by the prosecutor as the person to be charged.

Second, questions about the foundation necessary to make evidence admissible are directly related to questions about how much we are willing to rely on the corrective nature of the adversary process to ensure that evidence is accorded its proper probative value. For example, once convinced that the stocking tops were minimally relevant under a Rule 401 standard, the judge could leave it to the defense to fill out the context to offset any tendencies of the evidence to mislead. But this subjects the process, perhaps unnecessarily and unwisely, to risks of inadequate defense representation.

Is the potential for prejudice in the admission of the stocking tops found in the defendant's room diminished (or their probativeness increased) if the prosecution also offers proof that the defendant's fingerprints were found on the windowsill of Stella's apartment?

Note that Adamson, in the Supreme Court of the United States, became the vehicle for Justice Black's first great incorporation opinion.



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