published Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Courts bill passes House

House Bill 24
House Bill 24

A bill that would make it easier to enter modern evidence — including e-mails and computerized and medical records — in Georgia trials is closer to becoming law.

House Bill 24, which would update 150-year-old rules of evidence in the state to mirror federal standards, was passed Monday by the House of Representatives.

The evidence code hasn’t been rewritten since 1868 in Georgia, but 44 other states have updated their laws in recent years, said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who is sponsoring the bill.

“That’s a long time,” Willard said to his colleagues on the House floor.

The bill passed 162-5 and will go to the Senate, where it was stopped last year.

State Bar of Georgia President Lester Tate said Georgia is “probably two or three generations behind” in implementing the legislation. The state bar has tried to update the code for more than 25 years, and it’s likely to pass this year, he said.

The update is one of the most important bills the state Bar has supported in recent years, Tate said, because it better ensures fairer trials.

Experts no longer would be required to jump through hoops to give their opinions during testimony, and the law would redefine when a defendant’s prior conduct could be introduced as evidence, officials said.

Georgia is the only state that calls a person’s prior history his “bent-of-mind” in court, Willard said. The state has used the bent-of-mind argument against defendants when it shouldn’t be brought into evidence, he said.

DUI cases, however, will allow prosecutors to bring in a defendant’s history for refusing to take an alcohol test, he said.

“We’re allowing something new for [prosecutors] and they thought it was a pretty good benefit,” Willard said.

A person can argue that he wasn’t above the legal limit when he refused a test, but prosecutors will be able to use the argument against a defendant, he said.

The state’s district attorneys association opposed the bill when it was reintroduced in 2009, but withdrew opposition when exceptions were made for DUI cases.

Lawmakers backing the bill, including Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, say it now has widespread support.

After the bill was stopped in the Senate last year, Willard said he asked several lawmakers why they opposed it and their response was they “didn’t have time to read it.”

On Monday, he asked his colleagues if they do nothing else this year to “read the report.”

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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