Character Evidence Explained
You cannot, in any legal proceeding, criminal or civil, introduce evidence of a person’s character in order to prove that they acted in conformity with that character on a particular occasion. A prosecutor cannot attempt show that someone is greedy in order to help prove that they stole money. He cannot present evidence that a fellow is violent, in order to help prove that he committed an assault.
Character Assassinations Are Usually Forbidden
This rule is based on the fact that we do not want jurors to decide cases based on bad logic. As human beings, we quite often draw conclusions about what someone must have done based on what we think of their character. How many times have we heard a rumor about someone and thought, “Well, that sounds like the kind of thing he would do.” This process, jumping to conclusions, is something that comes very naturally but it is not logical and it is not based on real evidence about what someone has actually done. We want juries to be logical and so we do not, in the American system, let them hear things that might encourage them to jump to conclusions without using evidence and logic.
A pair of examples explain this well: Consider a case where Tom stole Mary’s diamonds and an eyewitness saw him do it. A jury with an eyewitness to the theft will likely conclude that he did it. A jury with both an eyewitness to the theft and evidence that Tom is greedy will also likely conclude that he did it. In either case, Tom is properly found guilty. Now consider a case where Tom did not steal Mary’s diamonds and there is thus no eyewitness. A jury without an eyewitness or other evidence will correctly conclude that Tom did not steal the diamonds. But what if the jury is given lots of evidence that Tom is greedy? Even though they do not have any evidence that Tom actually stole these diamonds, they might incorrectly conclude that Tom is guilty simply because it “sounds like the sort of thing a guy like Tom would do.” In other words, people who are guilty, where there is good evidence of guilt, will generally be found guilty, with or without evidence about their poor character. But people who are not guilty, may incorrectly be found guilty if evidence about their poor character is allowed into court. In short, we want to convict people for the right reason – that there is proof that they did it. We want that both because it is the fair thing to do and because we want to avoid convicting innocent people. After all, who among us could not at least be suspected of some crime, if the worst thing we had ever done and our worst character traits were put on display for a jury?
A Few Exceptions
There are a few exceptions to the rule that character evidence cannot be used. Character evidence, for instance, can be introduced to show motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident. Discussing each of these with a knowledgeable attorney will help you understand whether they may apply in your case.
If you are under investigation, or have been arrested by any law enforcement agency, feel free to contact one of our experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys, for a free initial consultation about your legal rights and possible defenses. In addition, if you have been wrongfully convicted, arrested, imprisoned, maliciously prosecuted, or have suffered some other wrong, feel free to call one of our experienced Civil Attorneys, for a free initial consultation.