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Past Problems Key Issue on Appeal

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By RICHARD WEATHERINGTON

The past sometimes has a way of catching up and haunting criminals, as a forger recently discovered when the testimony of a store manager about his prior difficulties with the man became central in an appeal of a forgery conviction.

A man, whose first name was Charles, went to a Georgia check casher to cash two purported Travelers Express “Moneygram” Money Orders, each of which was payable to him in the amount of $2,500.

Charles presented the money orders to the store manager, who determined they appeared to be counterfeit because they lacked certain security features of genuine Travelers Express Money Orders. The manager contacted the police, and when the responding officer asked Charles where he obtained the money orders, he claimed he received them from another man, but he did not know who the man was.

Charles was charged and convicted of two counts of forgery in the first degree, and he filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court denied.

Charles appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals. He argued that the trial court should not have allowed the state to introduce unnoticed similar transaction evidence under the theory that such evidence demonstrated prior difficulties between Charles and the business where Charles sought to cash counterfeit money orders.

Charles’s sole contention on appeal was that the trial court was wrong in allowing the store manager to testify that Charles had presented counterfeit money orders to him on prior occasions.

Charles claimed that such testimony constituted evidence of similar transactions rather than prior difficulties and should not have been admitted because he was not provided with pretrial notice of such evidence.

Under court rules, noted the Appeals Court, “notices of the state’s intention to present evidence of similar transactions or occurrences … shall be given and filed at least ten days before trial unless the time is shortened or lengthened by the judge.”

The Appeals Court said that the admission of evidence is a matter resting within the sole discretion of the trial court, and appellate courts would not disturb the exercise of that discretion, absent evidence of its abuse.

Objection at Start

During his opening statement, the prosecutor informed the jury that the store manager was already familiar with Charles because he on previous occasions had come up to the business and attempted to cash the same type of money order.

Charles’s counsel objected, arguing that he had not been provided with any discovery on similar type money orders, and moved to strike the prosecutor’s statement. The trial court overruled the objection.

When the store manager was on the stand, the prosecutor asked him whether this was the first time Charles had came into the check casher, and he responded that Charles “had come in on a few prior occasions with similar money orders.”

Over Charles’s counsel’s objections, the manager went on to testify that on prior occasions, Charles had presented him with Travelers Express “Moneygram” Money Orders, which he refused to cash. The judge, however, would not permit the manager to state whether he advised Charles that the prior money orders were counterfeit.

Although the trial court allowed the testimony, it issued a cautionary instruction, reminding the jury that the issue before it was whether Charles had committed forgery by presenting two money orders to the manager on the date set forth in the accusation.

An employee of another financial firm testified that her company sold Travelers Express “Moneygram” Money Orders. With the aid of two authentic money orders, she described the security features that should have been present but were missing on the money orders presented to the check casher.

At the close of the state’s case, Charles’s counsel moved for a mistrial based on the introduction of testimony concerning the manager’s prior encounters with Charles. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that the testimony in question was admissible as evidence of prior difficulties between the parties and relevant to show Charles’s motive, intent, or bent of mind.

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