Attempted Suicide as Evidence of Guilt

There are many reasons why people attempt to commit suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), over 44,000 people try to commit suicide each year in the United States. There’s no single reason why someone may try to take their own life, but certain factors can increase the risk. Someone may be more likely to attempt suicide if they have a mental health disorder. About 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death. Depression is the top risk factor, but there are various other mental health disorders that can contribute to suicide, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

So is attempted suicide evidence of guilt and admissible in a criminal trial?  By Evidence ProfBlogger:

Assume that a defendant who has been charged with a crime attempts suicide while detained prior to trial. Should evidence of this suicide attempt be admissible at the defendant’s ensuing trial? This was the question of first impression addressed by the Supreme Court of South Carolina in its recent opinion in State v. Cartwright, 2018 WL 4609386 (S.C. 2018).

In Cartwright, “Harold Cartwright, III (Cartwright) was convicted of one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC), eight counts of first-degree CSC with a minor, two counts of second-degree CSC with a minor, one count of third-degree CSC, and sixteen counts of committing a lewd act on a minor.” At Cartwright’s trial, the prosecution was allowed to present evidence that Cartwright attempted to commit suicide while detained prior to trial. At trial, Cartwright gave the following explanation for his suicide attempt:

I turned myself in. I’d been there for 30 days. I couldn’t get a bond. I was charged with some of the most heinous crimes that somebody could ever think about being charged with…. I’m in my cell with all these things on my mind, and then the daughter that I loved, [Daughter], hates me so much because I had her husband … locked up … and she held a grudge against me, and they come [sic] and served me ten warrants…. [A]t that time I didn’t feel I wanted to live any more [sic].

After he was convicted, Cartwright appealed, claiming that evidence of his suicide attempt should have been deemed inadmissible. The Supreme Court of South Carolina noted that it hadn’t addressed this issue before, but that in State v. Mann, 132 N.J. 410, 625 A.2d 1102, 1107 (1993), the New Jersey Supreme Court determined evidence of attempted suicide is admissible to show consciousness of guilt, but requires the trial court to hold a hearing outside the presence of the jury to evaluate whether evidence of the suicide attempt supports an inference that the defendant was seeking to avoid prosecution….The Mann court recognized that humans commit, and attempt to commit, suicide for a myriad of reasons including, but not limited to, prison conditions, family issues, financial problems, mental illness, emotional instability, disbelief in the justice system, stress, failure, and embarrassment….Acknowledging the complex nature of the evidence, the Mann court instructed trial courts to consider defendants’ alternative explanations, as well as the possible prejudice to a defendant from the introduction of the attempted suicide evidence. Additionally, the court noted trial courts “should ensure that a defendant has been given adequate notice of the State’s intention to offer proof of the attempted suicide.”

Finding this general logic persuasive, the Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled as follows:

Accordingly, in future cases, we instruct trial courts to conduct a hearing outside of the presence of the jury. During this hearing, at which the State and the defendant shall be permitted to introduce evidence, the trial court shall determine whether the State has proven that: (1) a jury could reasonably find that a suicide attempt occurred; (2) the defendant was aware of the occurrence of the alleged crimes at the time of the suicide attempt; and (3) an unmistakable nexus exists by clear and convincing evidence linking the suicide attempt to a guilty conscience derivative of the offense for which the defendant is on trial. If the trial court concludes that the three factors have been established, the evidence is relevant and may be admitted, subject to a Rule 403, SCRE analysis. The suicide-attempt evidence may be admitted only when all three factors have been met, and the evidence survives a Rule 403 analysis. We recognize that in view of our rigorous framework, suicide-attempt evidence will rarely be admitted.

But, despite this last line, the court found the evidence of Cartwright’s suicide attempt admissible because Prison authorities found Cartwright hanging in his cell, the same day Cartwright was served with additional warrants. Cartwright admitted that he attempted suicide after he became aware of the new charges. The record further reflects Cartwright threatened to commit suicide if the victims (Daughter, Stepdaughter One, and Stepdaughter Two) told anyone about the sexual abuse.

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