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United States v. Harris

December 29, 2006


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. No. 04-cr-00423) District Court Judge: Honorable William J. Martini.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Van Antwerpen, Circuit Judge.


Argued: December 12, 2006

Before: FUENTES and VAN ANTWERPEN, Circuit Judges, and PADOVA,*fn1 District Judge.


A jury in the District of New Jersey convicted William Harris of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2). Harris now appeals from that conviction, claiming he was denied a fair trial because (1) he was improperly cross-examined by the government about the credibility of police witnesses, (2) the prosecutor improperly vouched for the credibility of government witnesses during summation, and (3) the District Court did not permit him to question a witness about testimony in an unrelated criminal case that may have shown a particular racial bias on the part of the witness. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and will affirm.


On May 8, 2003, officers of the Newark Police Auto Theft Task Force approached Harris while he was in his car and arrested him for possessing a handgun. At trial, Harris and police witnesses provided very different accounts of Harris' roadside arrest and his subsequent detention at the police station. Harris' testimony conflicted with that of police with respect to how and why the officers approached Harris, what Harris had done before his arrest, the discovery and origin of the weapon found in Harris' vehicle, and the origin and contents of a signed statement produced by police.

At trial, after police witnesses and Harris gave incongruous testimony, the prosecutor cross-examined Harris about whether police witnesses had lied. As part of her cross-examination, the prosecutor restated various assertions of police witnesses that directly contradicted Harris' testimony and then asked Harris if it was his testimony that the police witnesses were lying. For example, the prosecutor asked, "Mr. Harris, it's your testimony that when Detective Walker told this jury that you were holding a gun in your hand that night, he was lying?" Harris' App. at 147A.*fn2 At no time during this examination did Harris object to these questions.

After cross-examining Harris, the prosecutor made the following statement during her summation: "So it's the defendant's theory, as you heard, that it's a big conspiracy . . . that this gun just appeared, this statement was fabricated, this statement was forged . . . and that then these officers came into federal court, each one of them, with a collective 37 years of experience in the Newark Police Department, and they put all that on the line to come in and tell you something the defendant says wasn't true." Harris' App. at 208A (emphasis added). Although Harris now claims this statement improperly bolstered the credibility of police witnesses, at no time during the prosecutor's summation did Harris object.

Just before trial, the District Court made a preliminary ruling with respect to a motion in limine filed by the government. The motion sought to prevent Harris from questioning one of the police officers involved in Harris' arrest about an unrelated criminal case in which the officer's testimony may have shown a bias against Hispanics. The District Court, in granting the government's motion, explained that the African-American officer's alleged bias against Hispanics was not relevant in Harris' case because Harris is not Hispanic (he is African-American) and because such bias would not be relevant to the officer's credibility. After this preliminary ruling, Harris did not seek to admit evidence of the arresting officer's alleged bias.


A. Prosecutor's Questions to Harris About Police Witness Credibility

Harris first claims that the prosecutor improperly influenced the jury's determinations of witness credibility by repeatedly asking Harris whether various police witnesses had lied in an effort to convict him. Because Harris did not object to any of the allegedly improper questions at trial, both parties agree that we review this challenge under the plain error standard of section 52(b) of ...

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