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Circumventing Congress: How the Federal Courts Opened the Door to Impeaching Criminal Defendants with Prior Convictions

53 Pages Posted: 19 May 2008 Last revised: 31 Aug 2010

Jeffrey Bellin

William & Mary Law School

Date Written: May 19, 2008

Abstract

This Article spotlights the flawed analytical framework at the heart of the federal courts' approach to one of the most controversial trial practices in American criminal jurisprudence - the admission of prior convictions to impeach the credibility of defendants who testify. As the Article explains, the flawed approach is a byproduct of the courts' reliance on a five-factor analytical framework to implement the governing legal standard enacted by Congress in Federal Rule of Evidence 609. Tracing the evolution of the five-factor framework from its roots in pre-Rule 609 case law, the Article demonstrates that the courts' reinterpretation of the framework in recent years has, by judicial fiat, transformed Rule 609. Rather than the obstacle to the admission of prior convictions that Congress intended, Rule 609 has become a conduit for their routine admission.

The Article concludes by proposing an alternative analytical framework designed to realign the federal case law on this critical subject with the governing congressional intent. In the absence of such a reform, the federal courts' erroneous analysis will continue to alter the course of countless criminal trials by unnecessarily deterring defendants from testifying and improperly penalizing those who do take the witness stand.

Keywords: federal rules of evidence, 609, prior conviction, impeachment, Mahone, Gordon, defendant testimony

Suggested Citation

Bellin, Jeffrey, Circumventing Congress: How the Federal Courts Opened the Door to Impeaching Criminal Defendants with Prior Convictions (May 19, 2008). U.C. Davis Law Review, Vol. 42, p. 289, 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1131742

Jeffrey Bellin (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States

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