The Supreme Court, 1996 Term - Leading Cases, Old Chief v. United States

Liebman, Benjamin L.

Rule 403 - Unfair Prejudice. - The Supreme Court has seldom scrutinized Federal Rule of Evidence 403, which allows exclusion of relevant evidence "if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice," despite the rule's position as "the cornerstone" of the Federal Rules of Evidence. While commentators have debated Rule 403's impact on the common law of evidence, the constitutional presumption of innocence, and the structure of trials, the Court has avoided providing detailed guidance as to the proper application of the rule.' Last Term, in Old Chief v. United States, the Court addressed one outstanding issue under Rule 403, ruling that a trial court abuses its discretion when, in a prosecution for possession of a handgun by a felon, it admits evidence of the name or nature of the defendant's prior conviction despite the defendant's offer to stipulate to his or her felon status. In holding that the risk of unfair prejudice from such evidence outweighs its probative value, the Court correctly resolved one aspect of the "most frequently litigated issue under Rule 403"9 and provided a useful framework for analyzing other applications of the rule. Yet the Court's broad reaffirmation of the prosecution's right to narrative integrity muddied the Court's ruling.


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November 25, 2015