United States v. Abel

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: John Clyde Abel
LOCATION: United States District Court House

DOCKET NO.: 83-935
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 469 US 45 (1984)
ARGUED: Nov 07, 1984
DECIDED: Dec 10, 1984
GRANTED: Mar 19, 1984

ADVOCATES:
Stephen S. Trott - on behalf of the petitioner
Yolanda Barrera Gomez - on behalf of the respondent

Facts of the case

In 1981, John Abel was indicted for robbing a bank in California. During Abel’s trial, the prosecution called one of his accomplices, Kurt Ehle, to testify that Abel had participated in the robbery. To counter Ehle’s testimony, Abel called a mutual friend, Robert Mills, to the stand. Mills, Abel, and Ehle knew each other from the time they spent in prison together and their involvement in a prison gang, the Aryan Brotherhood. Mills testified that, in prison, Ehle had talked about his plans to rob the bank and blame it on Abel. To discredit Mills, the prosecution re-called Ehle to the stand to expose the three men’s involvement in the Brotherhood and the gang’s strict code of protection, which required members to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to protect a fellow member. Ehle testified that this code of conduct explained why Mills testified in defense of Abel. Abel’s counsel argued that this testimony was irrelevant, but the district court allowed it into evidence because the probative value of the evidence outweighed any prejudicial effect it may have on Abel. Abel lost and appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reversed because admitting evidence that Mills belonged to a perjurious organization, to suggest he was committing perjury this time, unfairly prejudiced him by association absent any evidence of his individual willingness to lie. 

Question

Did the evidence regarding respondent’s and Mills’ membership in a prison gang unfairly impeach Mills and prejudice respondent by association?

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