United States v. Abel Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Respondent, John Abel, was charged with robbing a bank with two other men. In order to discredit Respondent’s witness, the prosecution offered testimony that he and the witness were part of a prison gang that promoted perjury on the behalf of fellow gang members.

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.


The issue is whether prejudicial testimony that implicates Respondent with a prison gang is admissible because it is probative to the bias of a witness.


The prejudicial testimony is admissible because it is highly probative of the bias of Respondent’s witness. The Federal Rules of Evidence do not directly address impeachment for bias, but the history of the Rules’ Advisory Committee mention bias as a concern that is encompassed by the Rules.


The Court held that the testimony was sufficiently probative of the defense witness possible bias toward the defendant to warrant its admission into evidence, regardless of whether the testimony was inadmissible under Rule 608(b) as extrinsic evidence of the witness’ past conduct bearing on his veracity. Furthermore, it added that the impeachment of a witness for bias is permissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence.

  • Case Brief: 1984
  • Petitioner: United States
  • Respondent: John Clyde Abel
  • Decided by: Burger Court

Citation: 469 US 45 (1984)
Argued: Nov 7, 1984
Decided: Dec 10, 1984
Granted Mar 19, 1984