Blades v. U.S.: On Cross-Examination and Bias

by Jamison Koehler on August 16, 2011
U.S. Capitol Building

The right to cross-examine witnesses is one of the defendant’s most important trial rights.  And, among the areas for cross-examination, what could be more important than bias?  An inability to accurately perceive events could result in an honest mistake.  Bias suggests that the witness might be deliberately coloring the testimony.

In Blades v. United States, 25 A.3d 39 (D.C. 2011), the D.C. Court of Appeals found that the trial court had improperly prevented the defendant from cross-examining the government’s only witness with respect to bias. It therefore reversed the decision and remanded the case for a new trial.

The government’s only witness at trial, James Bell, testified that he had personally witnessed the defendant stab another man.  Responding to the government’s questions, Bell also stated that he was “on very good terms” with the defendant, that the two of them had never tangled on anything, that he had no reason to fabricate his testimony against the defendant, and that the defendant was “like family” to him.

On cross-examination, defense counsel began to question the government witness about his stepson, a man who had been shot a few years ago in a separate event, when the government objected on the grounds of relevance.  What did a stepson’s shooting years many years ago have to do with the stabbing of the deceased in this case?

Defense counsel proffered that, although Bell believed the defendant had witnessed the assault, the defendant had refused to help with the identification and prosecution of the shooter. Defense counsel sought to determine the extent to which Bell might hold this refusal again the defendant, thereby potentially contaminating his testimony against the defendant.

The trial ruled against the defendant.  Specifically, it held that the defendant’s theory of bias was “far-fetched” and “too speculative.”  It thus precluded defense counsel from questioning Bell about any potential hostile feelings he may have harbored against the defendant in connection with the  stepson’s shooting.

In rejecting the trial court’s decision on the testimony, and thus reversing the decision, the D.C. Court of Appeals suggested that defense counsel might have done a better job of laying the foundation for this line of questioning:  “It is true that before pursuing a line of questioning suggesting that a witness is biased, a defendant must lay a foundation sufficient to permit the trial judge to evaluate whether the proposed question is probative of bias.  In order to lay a proper foundation for bias cross-examination, defense counsel must proffer, at the very least, a well-reasoned suspicion rather than an improbable flight of fancy to support the proposed cross-examination.”

At the same time, the Court held that the proffer need not be “exhaustive” or “particularly compelling” and that the standard is a fairly lenient one:  “Because of the central role that bias cross-examination plays in a criminal trial, the court must accord such cross-examination wide latitude and must not unduly restrict it.”  Cross-examination is “necessarily exploratory”:  “[T]he trial court must give counsel some leeway to probe for information that she cannot prove before commencing cross-examination.”

In the instant matter, the D.C. Court of Appeals concluded that defense counsel’s proffer was a “well reasoned suspicion,” not ‘improbable fight of fancy.”  The cross-examination as to Bell’s bias should thus have been permitted.

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