Applying the harmless error standard when constitutional rights are affected

In order to constitute reversible error, the admission of evidence must be an abuse of the trial court’s discretion and must affect a substantial right of a party.  See Minnesota Rule of Evidence 103(a). The latter part of this analysis, the harmless error rule, is often relied upon by an appellate court to avoid reversal of a lower court’s ruling. 

To determine whether a constitutional error regarding the admission of evidence is harmless, courts consider “the manner in which the evidence was presented, whether it was highly persuasive, whether it was used in closing argument, and whether it was effectively countered by the defendant.” State v. Al-Naseer, 690 N.W.2d 744, 748 (Minn. 2005). Overwhelming evidence of guilt is also an important consideration, but a court will not focus on the evidence of guiilt alone. Id. Improperly admitted evidence may be harmless when the evidence is cumulative, or there is other extensive evidence connecting the defendant to the commission of the crime. State v. Larson, 788 N.W.2d 25, 33 (Minn. 2010).

For example, in a recent decision released by the Minnesota Supreme Court, State v. Davis, A10-0731 (Minn. September 19, 2012), the Court assumed without deciding that the portion of a statement given by an individual being interrogated about a homicide after he said “I don’t want to talk” was in violation of that individual’s right to remain silent.  The Court then analyzed whether the statement given by the appellant during his interrogation actually affected the outcome of the trial, a guilty verdict on the charge of aiding and abetting first degree felony murder.

Because the alleged error in the Davis case involved a constitutional right, the error needed to be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt in order for the conviction to stand.  The allegedly inadmissible part of the statement at issue contained an admission of presence at the crime scene, but not an admission of any criminal liability.  The Davis Court held that the inadmissible part of the statement could not have played a significant role in the verdict, first because it was not inculpatory, in that presence at a crime scene did not establish guilt on the charges presented, and second because the admission of presence at the crime scene was cumulative to other evidence linking the appellant to the crime scene.  The Court found that the jury’s verdict was unattributable to any error in admitting the purportedly inadmissible portion of appellant’s statement, and declined to award a new trial on that ground.