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Nevada Supreme Court Reverses Conviction for Murdering Sixth Wife Due to Improper Prior Bad-Act Evidence Regarding Murder of Second Wife

Randolph told police he shot and killed a masked intruder who had fatally shot his sixth wife once in the head after they returned to their Las Vegas, Nevada, house from a night out. He said the intruder was a man he befriended a few months earlier and had been with a few hours earlier.

Because of inconsistencies between Randolph’s story and the physical evidence, police began to suspect Randolph had hired the intruder to murder his wife, then murdered the intruder. They found out he had taken out multiple life insurance policies on his wife and had numerous secret conversations and hundreds of phone calls with the intruder in the months leading up to the alleged burglary.

Prosecutors also discovered that Randolph’s second wife had been killed by a single gunshot to the head in Utah. Further, Eric Tarantino had told prosecutors that Randolph had befriended him, then started asking if he could hurt someone. Randolph laid out plans to murder his second wife, sketching out several possible scenarios – one of which was a staged burglary of his house – so he could collect on her life insurance policies. Utah authorities then charged Randolph with the murder of his second wife. 

Randolph solicited an undercover police officer to “wack” Tarantino to prevent him from giving testimony at trial. He was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to witness tampering. A jury acquitted him of murdering his second wife, and he was subsequently able to have that prosecution and the conviction for witness tampering expunged in Utah.

Nevada charged Randolph with conspiracy to commit murder and two counts of murder with the use of a deadly weapon. The trial court held a pretrial hearing pursuant to Petrocelli v. State, 692 P.2d 503 (Nev. 1985), to determine whether evidence of the second wife’s murder was admissible. The State’s offer of proof consisted solely of the testimony of William McGuire, the prosecutor during Randolph’s Utah murder trial. Randolph objected that McGuire’s testimony was hearsay as he had not witnessed any of the alleged bad acts. The court allowed McGuire to testify and allowed the admission of evidence about the Utah prosecutions. Thereafter, a jury convicted Randolph on all counts and sentenced him to death.

With the assistance of Mesquite attorney Sandra L. Stewart, Randolph appealed his conviction to the Nevada Supreme Court.

The Court observed that prior bad acts to prove a defendant’s alleged character or propensity are prohibited under NRS 48.045(2). Nevertheless, they may “be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.” Id. The party seeking to introduce such evidence “must request a hearing and establish that: (1) the prior bad act is relevant to the crime charged and for a purpose other than proving the defendant’s propensity, (2) the act is proven by clear and convincing evidence, and (3) the probative value of the evidence is not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.” Bigpond v. State, 270 P.3d 1244 (Nev. 2012). Admission of prior-bad-act evidence is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Newman v. State, 298 P.3d 1171 (Nev. 2013).

The Court determined that McGuire’s testimony was hearsay, mostly consisting of what Tarantino and other Utah authorities told him. “Accordingly, the State’s offer of proof proved very little.” The fact that Randolph was acquitted cast further doubt on the trial court’s finding that there was clear and convincing evidence he committed the bad acts. The trial court erred when it found the prior bad acts had been proven by clear and convincing evidence, the Court concluded.

The Court then turned its attention to the trial court’s finding that the probative value of the evidence in question was not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. In general, relevant evidence is admissible. NRS 48.025. However, there’s a “presumption of inadmissibility” to all prior bad act evidence. Rosky v. State, 111 P.3d 690 (Nev. 2005). The reason for the presumption is to guard “against unfair prejudice” that could lead a jury to convict “based on emotion, sympathy, or another improper reason disconnected from an impartial evaluation of the evidence.” State v. Eighth Judicial Dist. Court (Armstrong), 267 P.3d 777 (Nev. 2011).

Courts consider a variety of factors when balancing probative value against unfair prejudice, including: “the strength of the evidence as to the commission of the other crime, the similarities between the crimes, the interval of time that has elapsed between the crimes, the need for the evidence, the efficacy of alternative proof, and the degree to which the evidence probably will rouse the jury to overmastering hostility.” E.W. Cleary, McCormick on Evidence § 190 (3d ed. 1984).

Applying the foregoing to the facts of the case, the Court held that the trial court erred in ruling that the probative value of the evidence regarding the murder of Randolph’s second wife outweighed its prejudicial effect. The acquittal reduces the probative value as does the age of the murder and the fact that Randolph had three other wives since then with no such similar incident, the Court reasoned, adding that the State “lured the jury into finding Randolph guilty based on a myriad of other bad acts that were not even marginally related” to the murder except to prove he had a propensity for committing crimes which is prohibited by Nev. Rev. Stat. 48.045(2). “In sum, this evidence served only to show the jury that Randolph is a deceitful and violent man,” not that he murdered his sixth wife, the Court admonished. The error was not harmless.

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Related legal case

Randolph v. State

 

 

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