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Stipulation to Admit Video Created Error When Video Was Excluded at Trial

On July 14, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals remanded a civil rights action for a new trial after it found the exclusion of a video left it with “no assurance that [the plaintiff’s] claim was fairly tried.”

The case stemmed from the December 19, 2007 attempted suicide of pretrial detainee Reginald Pittman at the Madison County jail in Illinois. The suit alleged that guards at the facility were deliberately indifferent to the risk that Pittman would try to kill himself.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants in 2011. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit remanded as to jailers Randy Eaton and Matt Werner, and the case then proceeded to a jury trial.

The evidence showed that Pittman, who was left in a vegetative state after hanging himself with a blanket, left a suicide note that said he was killing himself because the guards were “fucking” with him by not letting him see members of the crisis intervention team. The key witness at trial was Bradley Banovz, who had occupied a cell adjacent to Pittman’s.

Some three hours after the suicide attempt, a county detective obtained a videotaped 25-minute interview with Banovz concerning Pittman’s suicide attempt. At trial, defense counsel objected to Pittman’s counsel’s attempts to enter the video into evidence; the district court sustained the objections on the grounds that the video was hearsay.

The Seventh Circuit found the seven years between the incident and trial had hampered Banovz’s recollection of events. “[W]hile he’d been lucid and articulate in the video interview he was a terrible witness at the trial, with poor recollection, and alternatively hostile and flippant demeanor, and an inability to counter evidence of his criminal record harped on by defense counsel,” the appellate court wrote.

“It was senseless to think that testimony by Banovz seven years after Pittman’s suicide attempt was as or more reliable than his recorded testimony made three hours after the attempt. And anyway the stipulation between the parties entitled the plaintiff to play the tape at the trial,” the Seventh Circuit stated. “The case being close, showing the video to the jury could have resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff – and so the judge’s error was not harmless.”

The Court of Appeals noted that according to the trial transcript, on the second day of trial the defense counsel said there would be no objection to playing the video of Banovz’s testimony. Yet he then objected three times, with the district court sustaining.

Defense counsel “gave no reason for retracting his agreement; he just said that his clients had changed their minds – but so what?” the Seventh Circuit noted. “Stipulations are not so easily set aside. See: Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(b), 16 (e).” A stipulation is binding unless it creates “manifest injustice” or was “made inadvertently or on the basis of a legal or factual error.” As none of those factors was present in this case, the district court’s exclusion of the video was error and a retrial was ordered. One appellate judge issued a dissenting opinion.

The case remains pending, with the defendants filing a certiorari petition with the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2017. See: Pittman v. County of Madison, 863 F.3d 734 (7th Cir. 2017), rehearing denied, petition for cert. filed. 

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Related legal case

Pittman v. County of Madison