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COA: Hearsay Testimony Causes Harmless Error


Marilyn Odendahl for www.theindianalawyer.com

Although a trial court was wrong in permitting two police officers to recount to a jury what the defendant’s ex-girlfriend told them, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled the admission was a harmless error.

Nathaniel Thrash was convicted of two courts of resisting law enforcement, as a Class A misdemeanor, and as a Level 6 felony. He was arrested by two Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers after his former girlfriend told them Thrash was in her apartment building, although he was not allowed to be there, and that she believed he had a pending warrant of arrest.

Before his trial, Thrash filed a motion to exclude the officers’ hearsay testimony regarding his ex-girlfriend’s statement about his pending warrant. His attorney argued that hearing about the warrant would be “too toxic” and lead the jurors to be assume Thrash must be guilty.

Marion Superior Court allowed the testimony but instructed the officers to say only that the girlfriend thought Thrash had a pending warrant. At trial, defense objected, and the court instructed the jury to only consider ex-girlfriend’s statement as an explanation as to why the officers went after Thrash.

On appeal, Trash argued the statements from the officers were inadmissible hearsay.

Referring to Craig v. State, 630 N.E.2d 207, 211 (Ind. 1994) and Hernandez v. State, 785 N.E.2d 294, 298 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003) trans. denied, the appellate court agreed the ex-girlfriend’s statement about the warrant had a prejudicial impact. Both officers could have limited their testimony to saying they were pursuing Thrash because she did not want him inside her apartment building.

However, the Court of Appeals ruled the error was harmless. The trial court’s instructed the jury to consider the officers’ statements solely as the motivation for their actions rather than as being a fact that Thrash had a pending warrant.

“Thrash makes no claim that the jury did not follow the trial court’s instructions,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the court. “Further, there was ample evidence to support Thrash’s two convictions of resisting law enforcement, such as refusing to remove his hands from his coat pockets, putting his hand underneath his body, and injuring an officer during the struggle. Thus, the erroneous admission of the statement regarding Thrash having a possible warrant was harmless.”