Yesterday, the Eleventh Circuit, which hears appeals from federal cases here in Atlanta, held in U.S. v. Phaknikone that profile photographs from the criminal defendant’s Myspace account were inadmissible evidence of character. The government argued that the photos demonstrated modus operandi: the defendant’s gangsta style as shown in the photographs identified the defendant because he robbed banks “like a gangster.” The Court saw through the argument, but held that admitting the photos was harmless error, due to the “overwhelming” evidence of Phaknikone’s guilt.
The relevant photograph in this case showed Phaknikone in the driver’s seat of a car. A tattoo is visible on his neck, as well as a large tattoo on his left arm, and he is holding a handgun in his right hand. A passenger is handing something to a child in the back seat of the car. The Court held that this photograph “proves only that Phaknikone, on an earlier occasion, possessed a handgun in the presence of a child. Although the photograph may portray a ‘gangster-type personality,’ the photograph does not evidence the modus operandi of a bank robber who commits his crimes with a signature trait.”
Phaknikone was convicted on fifteen counts stemming from seven bank robberies in late 2006 and early 2007 in Northeast Georgia. He was captured fleeing one robbery and confessed to three more. Evidence regarding clothing and shoes worn by the robbers, eyewitness accounts of his tattoos, and behavior during the robberies was introduced by the government, as well. The Court held that the evidence was overwhelming, viewed in its totality, so the admission of the photographs was harmless error.
The Court’s opinion is available here.
View larger version of image here.