Twenty-Nine Photographs and the Deterioration of the Missouri Relevance Rule.

AuthorHawley, Luke A.

State v. Wood, 580 S. W.3d 566 (Mo. 2019) (en banc).


    Courts generally prohibit the admission of unfairly prejudicial evidence. (1) The idea is that jurors should not be shown evidence if it has a substantially greater likelihood of prejudicing the jurors against the defendant than it does of helping them determine the facts of the case. (2) Barring objections on other evidentiary grounds, if a piece of evidence provides substantially more probative than prejudicial value, the evidence can be shown to the jury. (3)

    For decades, Missouri courts have limited the admissibility of unfairly prejudicial evidence. (4) While federal courts are governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence, Missouri is one of the few states that does not have an evidence code or stated rules of evidence. (5) Instead, evidence in Missouri courts is governed by a loose body of case precedent and state statutes. (6) Regarding prejudicial evidence in particular, Missouri courts are guided solely by case precedent. (7) Missouri judges are given great latitude in determining whether evidence should be excluded based on its prejudicial nature. (8) Abuse of that discretion can expose jurors to unfairly prejudicial testimony which may skew their perceptions of the defendant.

    In State v. Wood, the Supreme Court of Missouri conducted an abuse of discretion review of the trial court's decision to allow into evidence photographs of firearms that were not used in the commission of the murder. (9) The majority held that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion by overruling the defendant's objection to the firearm evidence. (10) Judge Stith provided the sole dissent, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing testimony and twenty-nine photos of guns that were unrelated to the charged crime. (11) First, this Note argues that the majority's opinion went against the great weight of Missouri precedent. Next, this Note argues that the dissenting opinion more accurately portrays the state of prejudice law in Missouri. Finally, this Note posits that the integrity of the criminal justice system is undermined by the result of Wood.


    On February 18, 2014, Craig Wood killed ten-year-old Hailey Owens. (12) Owens was walking down a sidewalk near her home in Springfield, Missouri, when Wood pulled alongside her in a tan Ford Ranger pickup truck. (13) Wood asked Owens for directions, but Owens kept walking. (14) Wood opened the door and told Owens to come back. (15) When Owens stepped back toward the truck, Wood pulled her into the truck and drove away. (16) Two witnesses saw the incident, noted Wood's license plate number, and called the police. (17) Police ran the license plate number and determined that the truck belonged to Wood's parents with Wood being the primary driver. (18)

    That evening, Springfield police officers conducted surveillance of Wood's home and observed a tan Ford Ranger pickup truck pull into the driveway at 8:30 p.m. (19) The truck matched the license plate number that the witnesses had reported and officers approached. (20) Wood exited the truck and tossed a roll of duct tape into the bed of the truck. (21) Wood smelled like bleach and, when asked, acknowledged that he knew why the officers were there. (22)

    Wood complied with the officers and voluntarily went to the police station. (23) Wood admitted that the tan Ford Ranger pickup truck was his, but Wood did not answer questions pertaining to Owens's whereabouts. (24) Officers examined Wood and noted cuts on his lower lip and fingers, as well as marks near his neck and groin. (25) Wood's hat had been stained by bleach, and he stated he had purchased bleach and drain cleaner from the store that day. (26) Wood also stated that he had dropped laundry off at the laundromat earlier in the day. (27)

    Before obtaining a warrant, officers went to Wood's home and looked for Owens, entering through an unlocked door. (28) They noted a strong odor of bleach coming from the basement. (29) The floor and steps were wet, and there was also a scrap of duct-tape on the floor. (30) There were bottles of bleach and plastic storage tubs. (31) Unable to find Owens, officers left Wood's home. (32)

    Later that evening, officers obtained a search warrant and returned to Wood's home to conduct a more thorough search. (33) In Wood's bedroom, the officers found that his bed had been stripped of sheets and blankets. (34) On Wood's dresser, officers found a folder with handwritten fantasy stories of sexual encounters between an adult male and thirteen-year-old girls. (35) The folder also contained photographs of female students at the middle school where Wood worked. (36)

    In the basement of Wood's home, officers found Owens's body wrapped in plastic bags and stuffed into a large plastic storage tub. (37) Owens was naked, stiffened from rigor mortis, wet, and smelled of bleach. (38) Owens had bruises and marks indicating that she had been tied by the wrists and attempted to free herself. (39) Marks on Owens's body also indicated that she had been sexually assaulted. (40)

    An autopsy showed that Owens died from a single gunshot to the back of her neck. (41) Forensic analysis revealed that the wound came from a .22 caliber bullet, passing through the base of Owens's brain. (42) The autopsy also showed that the killer had fired from point-blank range, placing the barrel of the gun on the back of Owens's neck and pulling the trigger. (43) Officers found a .22 caliber shell casing laying on the basement floor and concluded that the shell casing was fired from a .22 caliber Ruger 10/22 rifle that was locked in a gun safe in Wood's storage room. (44) In addition to the murder weapon found in the gun safe, officers also found several larger guns and gun accessories throughout the home. (45) In Wood's bedroom, officers found a shotgun leaning against the wall and a larger caliber handgun on the nightstand next to the bed. (46)

    The prosecutor charged Wood with one count of first-degree murder, one count of armed criminal action, one count of child kidnapping, one count of rape, and one count of sodomy. (47) However, the state proceeded to trial only on the murder count. (48)

    During the guilt phase of the trial, Wood did not testify or present evidence. (49) During his opening statement, Wood's counsel argued that Wood did not deliberate before killing Owens. (50) In response, the State's closing argument emphasized the evidence that could lead the jury to believe Wood did, in fact, deliberate before killing Owens. (51) The prosecutor stated, "I submit to you that when you place the muzzle, the end of the barrel of a gun, against the back of the base of the skull and you pull the trigger, there's only one purpose you have, and that's to kill someone. Your common sense tells you that." (52)

    During the guilt phase of the trial, the State called Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") Agent Tucker to detail the firearms that law enforcement found in Wood's home. (53) Agent Tucker testified that Wood had a holstered .44 caliber pistol on the dining room table, a .45 caliber pistol on a nearby bookshelf, a .38 caliber revolver on a bookshelf, a gun case with two semiautomatic handguns, a pump action shotgun in the bedroom, a .40 caliber semiautomatic in the bedroom, a revolver in the storage room, a gun safe containing ten additional guns, and another pump action shotgun sitting outside the gun safe. (54) As Agent Tucker described each gun, the jury was shown a photograph of the firearm. (55) The State also asked Agent Tucker to describe his experiences finding weapon accessories such as Wood's speed reloader, gun cases, ammunition, and reloading supplies. (56) The State showed photos of these accessories to the jury as well. (57) In total, the State published twenty-nine photographs of different weapons and accessories to the jury over Wood's objection. (58)

    The State argued that Wood's deliberation was evidenced by his decision to choose his smallest, quietest gun to commit the murder. (59) The State presented this evidence in conjunction with the fact that Wood attempted to hide his crime by changing his sheets, bleaching and hiding Owens's body, and disposing of Owens's clothes as proof that he deliberately killed Owens. (60) After hearing this evidence, the jury convicted Wood of first-degree murder. (61)

    During the penalty phase of the trial, the State elicited testimony that there was no prior connection between Wood and Owens or her family. (62) The State called a computer forensic examiner, who testified that after an Amber Alert was issued that listed Wood's truck, one friend sent Wood a text message asking, "You haven't been hunting, have you." (63) A second friend sent Wood a text message that said, "Oh great, I just got an Amber Alert for a gold Ford Ranger. What have you and [your dog] done???" (64)

    During the penalty phase of the trial, Wood presented evidence from his parents, his friends, guards from the Greene County Jail, and a priest. (65) Wood's parents testified about Wood's battle with depression and substance abuse, but also noted that he was employed and did not have a significant criminal history. (66) Wood's friends testified that they were surprised by Wood's arrest because this type of crime was inconsistent with his normal character. (67) One friend even recounted a story of Wood saving a man's life in an apartment fire. (68) Wood's friends testified that they did not know Wood had sexual fantasies about teenage girls. (69) The priest testified that after Wood's arrest, Wood renewed his faith, studied the Bible, and regularly met with the priest to discuss his crime. (70) Additionally, the jail guards testified that Wood caused no problems in the jail besides one instance where he hoarded pills apparently for the purpose of attempting suicide. (71)

    The jury unanimously found several statutory aggravating circumstances, including that the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT