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Conviction Reversed Due to Erroneous Admission of a Photo

Photo evidence is often used in criminal cases and photography is a common element in criminal investigation. Crime scenes are photographed. Injuries are photographed. Suspects are photographed. Evidence is photographed. Photo evidence is frequently admissible at trial in criminal cases when relevant. Though rules of evidence allow for the exclusion of photo evidence when the danger of unfair prejudice outweighs the probative value of the evidence, the most important consideration is typically the probative value. Very relevant photos will typically be admitted even at the risk of prejudice. The recent Tennessee case of State v. Chesteen, W2012-01998-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 8-29-2014) is a rare example of where a criminal conviction was reversed due to the appellate court conclusion that the admission of photo evidence was in error.

The defendant in the Chesteen case was charged with and convicted of rape of a child. With no physical evidence of the crime and no confession, the outcome depended on the jury's evaluation of the credibility of the victim's testimony. Over defense objection, the state introduced a photo of the victim's vaginal area. If it had depicted injuries which were alleged to have been caused by the defendant, the image would certainly have been probative. But it did not. It appears that the state's reason for introducing it was to bolster the victim's credibility by promoting the state's argument that the rape examination was a very unpleasant experience and that the victim would not have allowed herself to be photographed in such a way if her story was fabricated.

Based on their conclusion that the photo was not probative of a material issue at trial, the Court of Criminal Appeals found the trial court's admission of the evidence in error. Based on the state's emphasis of it in closing argument, the Court further determined the error to be prejudicial and reversed the conviction, remanding for a new trial.

For more information on the admissibility of photo evidence in a criminal trial, contact Hindman & Associates.

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