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Introduction Of Prior Murders Permitted In Capital Murder Case

By FindLaw Staff on April 29, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

US v. Lujan, No. 09-2046, involved the U.S.'s appeal, in a capital murder matter, of the district court's order excluding evidence that defendant had been responsible for prior murders.  The court of appeals reversed on the grounds that 1) the federal government sought to introduce evidence that defendant committed the prior murders only for the purpose of proving a non-statutory aggravating factor for sentencing for the murder presently at issue; 2) the district court abused its discretion in concluding that, in this case, any evidence of the double homicide posed such a great risk of unfair prejudice that it outweighed its high probative value; and 3) the district court could limit any prejudice with an instruction to the jury.

As the court wrote:  "Defendant-Appellee Larry Lujan is charged with the capital crime of kidnapping resulting in the death of a victim, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(1), for the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Dana Joe Grauke II in March 2005 (the "Grauke murder"). In its pursuit of the death penalty, and for purposes of the sentencing phase only, Appellant-United States sought to have evidence admitted that Lujan had previously committed a double homicide in New Mexico in December 1998 (the "Chamberino murders" or the "double homicide"). The United States asserted that this double homicide evidence would prove Lujan's future dangerousness--a non-statutory aggravating factor for the death penalty. Lujan argued that this evidence cannot be admitted because it is unfairly prejudicial, particularly because Lujan has been charged by New Mexico with the Chamberino murders but not convicted of them. The district court agreed with Lujan and ordered the evidence excluded pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3593(c) of the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994. The United States filed an interlocutory appeal of this order. Under 18 U.S.C. § 3731, we have jurisdiction to hear an interlocutory appeal of a district court's pretrial order excluding evidence from the sentencing phase. See also United States v. Pepin, 514 F.3d 193, 201-02 (2d Cir. 2008) (exercising jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 3731 to review on interlocutory appeal an
order excluding from the penalty phase evidence proffered by the government). Exercising that jurisdiction, we reverse the district court's order and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."

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