With the popularity and widespread coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, I have recently heard a lot of discussion about Character Evidence, in particular why certain evidence was not brought up by the attorneys during the trial. The trial judge excluded certain evidence about Trayvon Martin’s past, including his interest in street fighting and apparent drug use. The question people are asking is what kind of character evidence is admissible at trial and what is not?
Whether Character Evidence is or is not admissible is governed by Rule 404 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. In general, Character Evidence is not admissible in court to prove that a person acted in conformity with that trait on a particular occasion; however, there are exceptions to the general rule.
In a criminal case, the person who is accused of a crime may offer evidence of their own relevant trait, and if the evidence is admitted, the prosecutor may offer evidence to rebut it. For instance, the defendant in an assault or battery case can have a witness testify that they are not a violent person. In some criminal cases, where the victim’s conduct is a material issue in the case, the defendant may offer evidence of the alleged victim’s relevant trait, and then the prosecution has the opportunity to rebut that evidence. If evidence of the victim’s bad character is relevant to show the defendant’s innocence (i.e. in a self-defense case that the victim has previously assaulted or battered the defendant), then that evidence is admissible.
In some civil cases, such as fraud and battery, reputation evidence that is usually only admissible in criminal cases is admissible in the civil case as well. For example, in a case for fraud, a defendant’s reputation for honesty would be admissible to show that he did not commit the fraud. In a battery case, the defendant could introduce evidence of their peaceful nature to show that they did not commit the battery. If the character of the person is directly at issue in a civil case then Character Evidence is admissible.
Character evidence may also be used when it bears upon the credibility of the witness. A witness’s credibility may be attacked by both reputation and opinion testimony showing the witness’s character for untruthfulness, however, evidence of a witness’s truthful character may only be brought in after their character has been attacked. Except for a criminal conviction under Rule 609 (convicted of a felony or of a crime that involves a dishonest act or false statement (i.e. petit theft) evidence is not admissible to prove specific instances of a witness’s conduct in order to attack or support the witness’s character for truthfulness.
There are different types of Character Evidence: Reputation testimony, Opinion testimony and evidence of Prior Bad Acts. In order to offer reputation testimony, the witness must be familiar with the general reputation in the community of the individual and also be familiar with the trait in question of that person. A witness may also offer their opinion as testimony if they have relevant personal knowledge of the person whom they are testifying about. Prior Bad Acts are generally not admissible to show that a person acted in conformity with their prior act but may be admissible in criminal cases to prove motive, opportunity, plan, lack of mistake and/or intent.
Thank you to Courtney Steiger, 3rd year Nova Law Student, for contributing to this article.