When are Autopsy Photos Admissible in a Murder Trial?

When are autopsy photos admissible in a murder trial?

Prosecutors often want to show the autopsy photos to the jury in a murder trial, but are they relevant? Are they more prejudicial than probative under Rule 403?

In State v. Nelson, a rare unicorn of a case decided today, the SC Supreme Court reversed a murder conviction, finding that the autopsy photos were not relevant to any issue in the trial, should not have been admitted into evidence, and prejudiced the jury.

Why aren’t autopsy photos automatically admissible in a murder trial? When are they admissible, and how does Rule 403, SC Rules of Evidence apply to the admissibility of autopsy photos?

When are Autopsy Photos Admissible?

Prosecutors often want to show autopsy photos to the jury in a murder trial. Why? Because they are inflammatory, shocking, and will make the jurors more likely to convict the defendant, even if it is for an improper reason.

Defense lawyers don’t want the jury to see the autopsy photos. Why? Because they are inflammatory, shocking, and will make the jurors more likely to convict the defendant, even if it is for an improper reason.

So, prosecutors will continue to attempt to introduce gruesome autopsy photos in murder trials, defense lawyers will object, trial judges will usually admit them anyway, and, in most cases, the appellate courts will either say okay or find that it was harmless error.

Not today…

The Court not only reversed a controversial murder conviction but pointed out that they have warned prosecutors to stop pushing the envelope in prior appellate opinions. The Court quotes one of their previous cases where they said the admission of autopsy photos was “an area of growing concern to this Court” and:

The photographs at issue in this case, while admissible, are at the outer limits of what our law permits a jury to consider… Today we strongly encourage all solicitors to refrain from pushing the envelope on admissibility in order to gain a victory which, in all likelihood, was already assured.

Raising a question that I often ask – “If you have a slam-dunk case and you’re going to win anyway, why cheat?”

They didn’t need to show the jury the gruesome autopsy photos to get a conviction, so why did they?

Look, a Unicorn!

Although this case is like a rare unicorn sighting, there is, unlike many other opinions from our supreme court, rhyme, reason, and a method to the madness.

In State v. Nelson, the Court reviews some of its prior opinions where it allowed autopsy photos, pointing out that 1) those photos were relevant and probative on issues that needed to be proven at trial, and 2) the probative value of the photos outweighed their prejudicial impact on jurors.

Furthermore, in many of the prior cases where gruesome photos were admitted at trial, the photos were admitted during the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial, not during the guilt phase of a non-capital case. In Nelson, the photos were admitted during the guilt phase of a murder trial where the only issue at trial was who committed the murder.

Nelson claimed that her boyfriend committed the murder, and the boyfriend claimed that she committed the murder, but all parties agreed that the victim was murdered. The nature of the wounds and the victim’s death were not contested.

Autopsy Photos and Rule 403, SC Rules of Evidence

Rule 402, SC Rules of Evidence, states the obvious – relevant evidence is admissible, and evidence that is not relevant is not admissible.

Rule 403 states that, even when evidence is relevant, it can be excluded “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.”

In Nelson, the autopsy photos simply weren’t relevant – the death was proven, no one disputed that the victim was murdered, and the only issue for the jurors to decide was who committed the murder (“…the information depicted in the photos was not in dispute and the scant evidentiary value they did contain was negated by the forensic examiner’s testimony”).

To the extent that there was any probative value to the autopsy photos, it was substantially outweighed by the prejudicial effect on the jurors:

…we note these photos provide no insight as to who killed Victim. Thus, we do not believe the autopsy photos corroborate Daniel’s testimony that Carmie killed Victim. Under a Rule 403, SCRE, analysis, the photos had limited probative value. In this instance, where the photos were not needed to prove an issue in the case, the State should have heeded our warning in Torres to resist pushing the envelope on admissibility to gain a victory which was likely already assured.

The admission of these excessively gruesome autopsy photos unnecessarily created the potential for the jury to convict Carmie of the murder based on inflamed emotions in a case where the jury was provided with undisputed evidence as to how Victim died, as well as ample evidence that she had been killed with malice, whether by Carmie or Daniel.

What happens to Nelson now that her conviction has been overturned?

She gets another chance – “another bite at the apple.” Her case will be sent back to Charleston County, where she will be tried for murder again unless her attorney can negotiate a plea agreement with the solicitor’s office.

Criminal Defense Lawyers in Charleston, SC

Charleston, SC criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone represents people charged with crimes in SC state and federal courts and has extensive trial experience in all types of criminal cases from traffic offenses to murder.

If you have been charged with a crime or believe you are under investigation in the Charleston, Georgetown, or Myrtle Beach areas of SC, call now at (843) 808-2100 or email to schedule a free consultation.