A Michigan Supreme Court Decision rendered on July 17, 2017 could potentially change the face of the rules of evidence both on the federal and state level. The Denson decision is a landmark case and the victory led by Scott Grabel and Associates was not just a success story for him but could also blaze a trail for criminal defense attorneys in the foreseeable future (Michigan Supreme Court, Docket No. 152916, “People v. Denson”).
The facts create a complex fact pattern as the defendant in the case was convicted of assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder after a jury trial in the Genesee Circuit Court (MCL 750.84). One of the keys to the prosecution’s argument was the Michigan Rules of Evidence (MRE) 404 B (MRE 404 B [MIMIC]). MRE 404B, which is famously referred to as “MIMIC” is a tool that the prosecution has often used to bring in evidence that would normally be deemed unfairly prejudicial. In this case, the prosecution attempted to utilize 404 B to admit evidence of “other-acts” to incorporate a 2002 conviction of assault. After hearing arguments form the prosecution and the defense, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the case will be reversed and remanded for a new trial.
Scott Grabel of Grabel and Associates led the way to this historic victory. When asked about the case, Grabel stated, “The facts were on our side. When the prosecution wants to utilize the “other-acts” evidence of 404B, they have to prove two components: materiality and probative value. It’s not enough for the prosecution to simply argue relevance. This goes deeper than a MRE 401 argument (MRE 401: Relevancy: Evidence that tends to have probative value). They have to articulate how the evidence is relevant to that purpose without relying on a propensity inference. This was nothing more than an attack arguing that the defendant had a bad character, it was an argument that fell outside the Michigan Rules of Evidence and our acceptance of admissibility. I’m grateful that our supreme court protected the rights of individuals in their decision.”
An argument set forth by the prosecution was the “harmless-error” doctrine. The doctrine is a justification when there is a non-constitutional error that is presumed not to be a ground for reversal unless it appears more probable than not that the error was outcome determinative. For interpretation on this, Ravi Gurumurthy, a defense lawyer from Cadillac, Michigan weighed in. When asked, Gurumurthy stated, “Grabel’s argument was brilliant. For years the prosecution has thrown the harmless error doctrine out there to wash away police misconduct and to make up for unsupportive facts. If the Michigan Supreme Court allowed the “other-acts” evidence into admissibility within this particular case, it would have presented a presumption that a party that has arguably a bad character is presumed guilty before the case even gets to a trier-of-fact. This is not only a win for Scott Grabel but a win for all of us that strive to uphold the constitution.”
The Federal Effect
While this case was brought before the Michigan Supreme Court, there is no question that both the Michigan Rules of Evidence and the Federal Rules of Evidence have striking similarities and the work of Scott Grabel is going notice even beyond the borders of our state. Brian Largey, a New Jersey criminal defense attorney and a former New Jersey State Trooper weighed in on the issue. Largey said, “The Denson decision not only will have a profound effect on the rules of evidence but it will play a vital role in criminal procedure across the country. There is no question that our job just got a little easier thanks to this decision.”
The Community View
While the Denson case has captured headlines in the legal community, the business community was also watching with great curiosity. Jeff Scherer, a top real-estate agent for Howard Hanna Real Estate Services provided commentary. “We have clients that come from all walks of life. I cannot tell you how many times that I have sold a home to someone and they asked if I knew a good lawyer. The way that the constitution can be interpreted can be a threat to all of us depending upon the situation that we are placed in. I have to say, after watching Scott Grabel and his team handle this matter, I feel a sense of relief for my clients and family members. People do not realize that good people can be accused of bad things and sometimes, the only things that stand between us and our freedom is a talented lawyer. When I sell a home to someone it is not only about economics but it is about building a bond. I connect with my clients and I feel that we can all breathe a sigh of relief after this decision. The Denson decision is a game-changer and one that will preserve our constitutional protections for years to come.”
While the victory before the Michigan Supreme Court was a victory for constitutional protections, there is a long way to go. The success level that Grabel and Associates has had before our supreme court makes them a world-renowned firm. Others will have to follow their lead as the laws continually compromise our constitution. While today is a victory, the road ahead will be challenging for all involved. It’s time for criminal defense lawyers across the country to step up to the plate.
William Amadeo is a partner at the law firm McManus PLLC in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In addition to his duties at his firm, he owns and operates BAT Tutoring in Lansing, Michigan and is a contributing writer for “We Love Ann Arbor” and “We Love Dexter”. He can be reached at: Amadeo@McManuspllc.com.