When entering a plea in Texas Criminal Courts, the choices are guilty, not guilty or, in some situations, no contest. The not guilty plea means that, based on the rules of the court, the prosecution can not prove that the defendant committed a crime.
When pleading not guilty, it becomes incumbent upon the prosecution to prove that the defendant committed the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that even if the prosecution provides evidence strongly suggesting that the defendant committed the alleged crime, such evidence may not be sufficient to determine guilt based on the reasonable doubt standard.
Therefore, when a defendant is accused of a crime, the prosecution, in concert with local and perhaps national law enforcement, must attain evidence sufficient to meet the guilty threshold.
As a consequence, the prosecution searches for evidence, often on the property of the defendant and where it is believed that the defendant committed the alleged crime. In turn, the defendant may feel compelled to tamper with or destroy the evidence to derail the prosecution’s case. Someone who destroys evidence has committed the crime of spoliation, which is criminal under Texas law.
When spoliation occurs, a jury can often infer guilt because the evidence has been destroyed. This was the ruling in the Trevino case from 1998, wherein a court applied what is now called the Trevino test. A party has a duty to preserve evidence, though there is no duty to apply extreme care.
In general, the prosecution will enlist help of the authorities to find evidence. Police departments and the FBI all employ evidence specialists whose job is to gather evidence and make certain determinations about that evidence. They will often comb the scene of the crime and look for specific clues. They have training with respect to evidence that is common amongst similar types of crimes.
For example, a murder in a wooded area may contain blood marks on the trees. A murderer will likely try to dispose of the body as quickly as possible. In that scenario, he or she may conclude that a wooded area, especially if secluded, provides the best protection for finding the body. In that instance, the murderer would likely move the body to a more remote part of the wood. The dead body, however, would likely attract wild animals that would eat the human remains. Investigators would look for clues of those animals based on the specific habitat of the area in question.
After a defendant is accused of a crime, it is not uncommon for the defendant to return to the scene of the crime to destroy evidence. Or, the defendant may send an accomplice to hide that evidence. In such an instance, those investigators would probably assume that the defendant or an accomplice tampered with the evidence and conduct a search based on such an assumption. This may lead to further accusations of spoliation against the defendant.
The next post will discuss this in more detail.
Accused of a crime? Contact the criminal defense firm of Christopher Abel.
(image courtesy of Luke Stackpoole)