FRE 611(a) "Reasonable Control" Standard, Evidentiary Rulings And The Constitution

In tax fraud prosecution, limitations on the pro se defendant's testimony did not violate defendant's Fifth Amendment Due Process or Right Against Self-Incrimination or Sixth Amendment Right To Compulsory Process; the trial judge reasonably limited the defendant's direct testimony under FRE 611(a) to “just ... the facts,” and not argument, sustained evidentiary objections, and permitted the pro se defendant "some leeway" in presenting substantial exculpatory testimony that assisted his defense, in United States v. Woods, 710 F.3d 195 (4th Cir. March 18, 2013) (No. 11-4817)

The authority of the federal trial judge to manage the cases has long been accepted and is an essential premise of the application of the rules of civil and criminal procedure. At trial, FRE 611(a) generally allows the trial court to "exercise reasonable control over the mode and order of examining witnesses and presenting evidence." The rule specifies three factors that help define what control is "reasonable," namely:

  1. Make those procedures effective for determining the truth
  2. Avoid wasting time and
  3. Protect witnesses from harassment or undue embarrassment
FRE 611(a).

A recent Fourth Circuit case serves as a reminder that the FRE 611(a) criteria are not exclusive. Indeed, these factors should be considered within the general context of according the defendant the benefit of his constitutional rights, such as that presenting a defense, due process, and right against self-incrimination. In the case, defendant Woods represented himself pro se against charges involving an alleged tax fraud scheme. At trial, assisted by stand-by counsel, the defendant elected to testify. Apparently his testimony consisted of a narrative to which the prosecution lodged 15 objections contending that the defendant was presenting argument and not dealing with factual matters. In essence, the defendant's testimony "summariz[ed] other witnesses' testimony or ... testif[ied] concerning facts about which he had no personal knowledge." In most instances the trial judge sustained the government objection, advising the defendant to "just relate the facts," and to "confine [his testimony] to the facts" and not "argue about ... whether [a previous witness] said something or didn't say something." Woods, 710 F.3d at 201.

Despite the trial court's admonitions, the defendant persisted in his approach; upon his conviction, he contended the trial judge "prevented him from developing certain 'themes' of his defense during his testimony."

The Fourth Circuit did not buy the defendant's argument:

we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in its evidentiary rulings, did not act arbitrarily, and did not impose limitations on Woods’ testimony that were disproportionate to legitimate concerns of evidentiary reliability or trial management. As an appellate body, we appreciate that the dynamic nature of jury trials requires special vigilance on the part of district courts to manage effectively the participation of parties, witnesses, jurors, and spectators. We also recognize the difficult role of the district court when a defendant chooses to represent himself, especially when such a defendant elects to testify in his own defense.

In light of these challenges, we decline to find reversible error in the absence of plainly arbitrary conduct by the district court. Here, there is no such conduct, and the present record affirmatively demonstrates that the district court expressly granted Woods considerable leeway in presenting evidence and allowed him to offer substantial exculpatory testimony. Accordingly, we hold that the district court did not deprive Woods of his constitutional right to testify in his own defense.
Woods, 710 F.3d at 202.

One key to the circuit's affirmance was the conclusion that there was no action taken by the trial judge that was unreasonable. Add to that the court's reasonable limitations imposed on the defendant and that it allowed the defendant "considerable leeway" and did not inhibit his ability to present "substantial exculpatory testimony."

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