State appeals court backs telling jury of man’s anti-government leanings

Tuesday, November 14, 2000

A Texas trial court did not violate the First Amendment rights of a
defendant when it allowed prosecutors to introduce evidence of his membership
in an anti-government group during sentencing, a state appeals court has

Aaron Thompson was charged with aggravated assault on a public servant
for firing a gun at a constable and other law enforcement officials in
September 1997.

After a jury convicted Thompson, he was sentenced to 10 years in
prison. During the sentencing phase of the trial, the judge allowed prosecutors
to introduce evidence of Thompson’s membership in the Republic of Texas.

A deputy sheriff testified during sentencing that the Republic of
Texas has a reputation of being a violent, anti-government organization intent
upon overthrowing the state and federal governments.

On appeal, Thompson contended that the introduction of evidence about
his membership in the Republic of Texas violated his First Amendment
free-association rights.

Thompson cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1992 decision
Dawson v. Delaware for his argument.
In Dawson, the high court ruled that
a trial judge violated the First Amendment rights of a capital murder defendant
when the judge allowed a jury to consider the defendant’s prison membership in
the Aryan Brotherhood during its death-penalty determination.

The high court determined in Dawson that prosecutors violated the defendant’s
First Amendment rights in part because the defendant’s gang membership was
irrelevant to his crime of killing a white woman.

However, the high court in Dawson noted that the First Amendment does not
erect a complete barrier to the introduction of evidence regarding a
defendant’s beliefs and associations if such evidence is relevant.

On Nov. 8, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in
Thompson v. State that the
introduction of Thompson’s membership in the Republic of Texas did not violate
his First Amendment rights.

“Moreover, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has recognized
that where the defendant is charged with an act of violence, as in the instant
case, membership in an organization with a reputation for violent activities is
relevant evidence because it relates to his character and is therefore
admissible,” the appeals court wrote.

“If the defendant’s membership in an organization and the
organization’s reputation give the jury valuable information regarding the
character of the defendant, such information should be allowed into

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