Convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to seven years in prison, Roy Bell’s situation was bleak. Mr. Bell was convicted of marijuana trafficking with a schoolyard specification, drug possession, and possession of criminal tools. Mr. Bell was also forced to surrender his assets to the state. Attorneys at ZDL appealed his conviction and sentence, arguing that Bell’s rights had been violated. The Court of Appeals agreed, reversing Bell’s conviction.
In addition to incarceration, a felony conviction can negatively impact nearly every aspect of a person’s life. Without an experienced and tenacious advocate on your side, finding justice can seem like an overwhelming – sometimes impossible – feat. Knowing all too well the numerous ways that courts and prosecutors can violate the rights of the accused, the attorneys at Zukerman, Daiker & Lear set out to make things right.
Our attorneys identified a number of errors made by the court, including defective jury instructions, improper admission of prejudicial evidence, and a failure to merge allied offenses for sentencing. We argued that these errors, taken together, were prejudicial and that the only remedy was a reversal of the convictions.
Two of the main issues concerned defective jury instructions and the state’s improper admission of “other-acts” evidence.
The trial court erroneously instructed the jury that the state had to prove the schoolyard specification by a preponderance of the evidence, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt. This error, the court found, “resulted in prejudicial error to the appellant.”
The trial court also admitted tax records establishing that the defendant did not disclose any income for the tax years 2005 – 2009. While there are a number of exceptions under the rules of evidence that allow the admission of other-acts evidence, it was clear that the state’s goal in submitting the tax records was to allow the jury to infer that the defendant was a drug dealer. The appeals court agreed, finding that the trial court “abused its discretion in admitting” the tax records. “The danger of unfair prejudice to appellant,” the court explained, “by way of the implication that his vacant tax record reflected his career path as a drug dealer, substantially outweighed any probative value that the records provided.” Although the appeals court found that the admission of the evidence was an abuse of discretion, they believed that the error was harmless because the state had presented “substantial evidence to support the guilty verdict beyond the other-acts evidence.” Fortunately for the defendant, this was not the end of the inquiry.
The court determined that the cumulative effect of errors in the trial deprived the defendant of his constitutional right to a fair trial. In order to find such “cumulative error” present, a court must find that multiple errors (harmless or otherwise) were committed at trial. A court must then “find a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different but for the combination of the separately harmless errors.”
In the present case, we cannot say that the cumulative effect of the above errors was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial court’s improper admission of the state’s tax records exhibit demonstrating appellant’s lack of past tax filings dating back five years was other acts evidence that opened the door to the prejudicial inference that appellant was a career drug dealer. The trial court’s erroneous jury instructions, at the very least, invalidated appellant’s convictions of the schoolyard specifications and forfeiture specifications and, at worst, introduced a confusing element to the jury regarding the applicable burden of proof for appellant’s crimes.
The court also noted that evidence of the defendant’s alleged crimes was established “entirely by testimony of codefendants in exchange for plea consideration.”
Because the court found that there was “a reasonable probability that, but for the above errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different,” the judgment of the trial court was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.
Because the accumulation of what an appeals court may view as trivial or harmless errors can in fact result in a reversal for a client, it is vitally important that a defendant has the assistance of knowledgeable attorneys who will never stop fighting for them. Because the attorneys at Zukerman, Daiker & Lear fought hard to protect Roy Bell’s rights, his conviction and seven-year prison sentence have been reversed, and he now has the opportunity to fight for an acquittal.
State v. Bell, 8th Dist. No. 97123, 2012-Ohio-2624.