Using Surrounding Circumstances To Authenticate Evidence

In a murder for hire conspiracy, Eighth Circuit concludes that a note found in a co-defendant's purse (suggesting another co-defendant would be set up as the "fall guy" for the successful murder) was authenticated by the surrounding circumstances under FRE 901(b)(4); after the "low threshold" for authentication was satisfied, the jury could determine any weight given to the evidence, in United States v. Young, _ F.3d _ (8th Cir. May 23, 2014) (Nos. 12-2527, 12-2593)

FRE 901(b)(4) provides that evidence may be authenticated based on the "appearance, contents, substance, internal patterns, or other distinctive characteristics of the item, taken together with all the circumstances." A recent case highlights the application of this rule to authenticate a note found in a co-defendant's purse.

Trial Court Proceedings: Co-Defendant Authenticates Note

In the case, defendants Young and Mock were charged with conspiracy to commit murder for hire resulting in death and a substantive count based on the murder of Young's husband. At trial, co-defendant Mock moved to introduce a note that police had seized during a search incident to Young's arrest. The note was found in a purse on the passenger seat of her truck. In part, the note stated: ""Use her drugged state to convince her she shot him. Offered 10,000 to kill him. Was turned down. If I collaborate her story. Bucks. Sheriff here 3:30 p.m." The trial court overruled Young's objection that the co-defendant had failed to authenticate the note. After her conviction, defendant Young raised this issue on appeal

Eighth Circuit Review: Considering The Surrounding Circumstances

The Eighth Circuit concluded that the note was properly authenticated under FRE 901(b)(4) based on the surrounding circumstances. As the circuit explained:

[T]he contents of the writing connect the writing to the defendant. First, the writing was found in Young's purse. Second, the contents of the note refer to drugging someone to get them to accept responsibility for a murder as well as mentioning a $10,000 offer for killing someone and obtaining "bucks." The
writing did not contain mere numbers but a description, albeit brief, of a unique, factual scenario to which the defendant was involved....

Young, _ F.3d at _.

The circuit also noted that the note satisfied the "low threshold" for authentication:

The note was not admitted as a confession but merely as a note in Young's possession that corroborated Mock's defense that Mock was Young's intended 'fall guy' for Griesbauer's murder. Mock therefore demonstrated that this note is what she claimed it is by showing that the note's contents and surrounding circumstances tied the note to Griesbauer's murder. The jury then decided the weight to give this evidence and any additional questions of authenticity.

Young, _ F.3d at _.

The circuit found unpersuasive defendant Young's claim that the proponent of the note failed to show the purse belonged to Young. A reasonable inference that the note belonged could be based on the fact that she "was the only person in the truck at her arrest" and "the purse sat atop the passenger seat within her reach." Young, _ F.3d at _.

Finally, the circuit noted that even if error were assumed in admitting the note at trial, any error was harmless. There was "abundant evidence" to support the murder for hire conspiracy. The note was not emphasized at trial until it was "briefly" discussed during co-defendant Mock's closing argument.

Conclusion

The Young case demonstrates how surrounding circumstances may be used to authenticate a document at trial. For other cases noting the application of this rule, consider prior posts in the Federal Evidence Blog.

For another issue raised in the Young case, consider the blog post: Noting The Burden To Preserve Evidence Challenge For Review On Appeal.

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Photo Description: Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, MO. Learn more about the 29-story courthouse which was named after former U.S. Senator Eagleton.

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