The opinion of the court was delivered by: RAMBO
Before the court are Plaintiff's motions in limine, which were filed on August 4 and August 10, 1995. Plaintiff seeks an order precluding Defendants from introducing into evidence his criminal convictions and those of Donald Leonard, an inmate whom he intends to call as a witness at the trial of this matter. The motions became ripe for disposition upon the filing of Plaintiff's reply briefs on September 7, 1995. For the reasons set forth below, the court will grant Plaintiff's motions and preclude introduction of the convictions.
Plaintiff is an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania ("SCI-Huntingdon"). Defendants are corrections officers who are employed at SCI-Huntingdon. Plaintiff instituted the captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking redress for alleged violations of his Eighth Amendment rights. The gist of the claim is that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to a serious risk of harm to Plaintiff from a fellow inmate, Charles Evans.
Plaintiff and Evans were discovered committing a drug infraction at SCI-Huntingdon, and became involved in some level of dispute over who should take responsibility for the infraction in institutional disciplinary proceedings. Plaintiff claims that in the course of the preliminary disciplinary proceedings, Evans made serious threats to harm him, and that Defendants overheard the threats but took no action to ensure his safety. The following morning, Evans attacked and cut Plaintiff with a home-made knife, an event which is apparently undisputed. Plaintiff alleges that Evans was known to be violent and Defendants, having heard the threats, should have taken steps to protect him from Evans.
Defendants respond that the convictions have important probative value for the issue of credibility, which they say is the pivotal issue in this action because they will deny having overheard Evans threaten Plaintiff. Defendants urge that the convictions are probative on credibility because they show that Plaintiff and Leonard have no disincentive for failing to tell the truth, given their life sentences. They further argue that Plaintiff's conviction is specifically relevant to the claim underlying this action, a position that will be discussed more fully, infra.
The admissibility dispute in this matter is governed by Fed. R. Evid. 609(a)(1), which states that for purposes of attacking the credibility of a witness:
(1) evidence that a witness other than an accused has been convicted of a crime shall be admitted, subject to Rule 403, if the crime was punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year under the law under which the witness was convicted . . . .
Fed. R. Evid. 609(a)(1). The incorporation of Rule 403 into Rule 609(a)(1) requires that evidence of prior convictions that is probative of the credibility of the witness must be excluded if the court determines that the prejudicial effect of the convictions would substantially outweigh their probative value. The inclusion of this balancing standard into Rule 609(a)(1) was deliberate, a point that is discussed more thoroughly, infra. Its significance is underscored by a comparison to Rule 609(a)(2), which mandates that evidence of convictions for crimes of dishonesty or false statement also shall be admitted, but contains no Rule 403 qualification.
In civil cases, courts rely on a number of factors in deciding whether to admit evidence under Rule 609(a)(1). See 1 McCormick on Evidence, § 42 at 144-45 n.9 (4th ed. 1992). These include the nature of the convictions, the time that has elapsed since conviction, the importance of credibility to the underlying claim, and the potential for prejudice from admitting the convictions. The first three factors illuminate the inquiry into the probative value of the convictions. Once the probative value has been determined, it must be weighed against the fourth factor, the potential that the convictions will prejudice the jury against the Plaintiff. In short, these factors serve the balancing test required by Rule 403.
The convictions sought to be admitted here are for the crimes of murder and robbery, and they are approximately twenty years old. In terms of credibility, their probative value consists of whatever insight they can provide into the general credibility of the Plaintiff and Leonard. In that regard, this court is not as persuaded as some courts seem to be that such convictions and their accompanying life sentences show a propensity for untruthfulness or a certain willingness to lie under oath. Felony convictions undoubtedly have some probative value for the issue of general credibility in many cases, but they are not dispositive of the issue in every case. Something more is required to make an informed determination of the ...