Murder Victim’s Steroid Exposure Not Relevant To Defendant’s Self-Defense Claim

Evidence that murder defendant’s victim had steroids in his blood when he was killed attempting to execute an arrest warrant on the defendant was properly excluded because the evidence was not relevant to defendant's claims of self-defense, in United States v. Wilk, 572 F.3d 1229 (11th Cir. June 29, 2009) (Nos. 07-14176, 07-14196)

In a recent case, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s exclusion of evidence of steroids found in the blood of the deputy sheriff that the defendant shot and killed. The defendant claimed the killing was in self-defense. He sought to admit post-mortem evidence of the victim's steroid use, contending that the drug could influence its users to act aggressively or erratically. The circuit concluded that the steroid evidence did not make the self-defense claim more or less probable – and so it was not relevant under FRE 401 -- in light of the defendant’s own testimony that indicated no aggressive or erratic action on the part of the victim.

In the case, defendant Wilk had threatened law enforcement personnel after they arrested his domestic partner on child pornography charges. At the behest of his partner, the defendant contacted witnesses and began to plan to “threaten or kill a witness” against the partner. Federal agents obtained an arrest warrant for the defendant and a search warrant for his residence. As described by the circuit, the defendant was arrested after a shoot-out. The shootout resulted in the injury of one officer and the killing of a deputy sheriff officer named Fatta.

Charged with the killing, among other crimes, the defendant testified at his six-day trial. His testimony described how on the morning of the raid he was having a morning cup of coffee when: “he heard a crashing noise and grabbed his gun, fearing that he was being attacked because he had previously been a victim of anti-gay vandalism and hate mail. Wilk testified that a dark figure, pointing a gun in Wilk's direction, stood in the living room and confronted him and that no police markings were visible. Wilk asserted that he fired his gun in fear for his life and that he acted in self-defense.” Wilk, 572 F.3d at 1234. The jury found the defendant guilty of murdering the deputy sheriff.

As part of his appeal, the defendant contended that the trial court erred by excluding evidence he proffered that the killed deputy sheriff’s “post-mortem examination revealed that he had steroids in his blood, and Wilk sought to admit this evidence as relevant to his self-defense claim.” The trial court excluded the evidence as not relevant because it “would not tend to prove or disprove any material fact at issue, and that the prejudicial effect and confusion of the issues substantially outweighed any probative value of the evidence.” Wilk, 572 F.3d at 1234.

In his appeal, the defendant contended that the steroid evidence was “relevant to his defense because a person on steroids can act aggressively and erratically, which would have corroborated his testimony that the officers acted like armed home invaders instead of police officers.” Wilk, 572 F.3d at 1234. By excluding the steroid evidence the defendant contended he was unable to corroborate his claim of self-defense and present his version of events to the jury, among other defenses.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s exclusion of the steroid evidence as not an abuse of discretion. Its exclusion was proper under FRE 401 in that the evidence must “make the existence of any fact that is of consequence … more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” The steroid evidence would do neither. In addition, even if relevant, it was excludable under FRE 403 if its “probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury.” Wilk, 572 F.3d at 1234 (quoting FRE 401 and FRE 403).

According to the circuit, the steroid evidence was not relevant because it did not make the defendant’s self defense claim more or less probable:

“[E]ven Wilk's record testimony that he was confronted by a dark figure standing in his living room, pointing a gun in Wilk's direction, fails to corroborate his assertion that Fatta acted aggressively or erratically. The strongest evidence supporting any aggressive or erratic behavior is that Fatta kicked out the front window of the residence. Yet the record reflects that Fatta did so only as the other officers were attempting, without success, to break through the front door. Most importantly, no evidence exists that Fatta was the aggressor in the shoot-out -- to the contrary, the record shows that no shot was ever fired from Fatta's gun.”
Wilk, 572 F.3d at 1235.

While it may be true as claimed by the defendant that steroid use could lead to aggressive or erratic action, there was no evidence that the deputy sheriff who was killed actually acted aggressively or erratically at the time of the killing. In this light, the fact that the deputy may have had steroids in his blood at the time he was killed is not relevant to whether the defendant had a valid claim of self-defense. But even if erroneously excluded, the circuit suggested that the omission of the evidence was harmless. “[E]ven if the steroid evidence had some relevance,” the circuit noted, “we are hard-pressed to see how it was crucial or necessary to Wilk's establishment of a valid defense.” Wilk, 572 F.3d at 1235 (citing United States v. Todd, 108 F.3d 1329, 1332 (11th Cir. 1997) (a court's discretion to rule on the relevance of evidence “does not ... extend to the exclusion of crucial relevant evidence necessary to establish a valid defense”)).

Federal Rules of Evidence