Criminal Cases Often Involve Character Evidence
Over the centuries of common law, a prohibition against introducing evidence of a person’s character developed so as to avoid influencing juries and judges to find either for or against a defendant merely because of a perception that a person has a good or bad character. Common law, however, has developed various exceptions to the prohibition of introducing character evidence, finding that the admission of certain types of character evidence is more probative than prejudicial.
Utah has adopted the common rule against introducing character evidence in its Rules of Evidence. Rule 404 states: “Evidence of a person’s character or character trait is not admissible to prove that on a particular occasion the person acted in conformity with the character or trait.” That same rule goes on to set forth the exceptions to the general rule as it applies to defendants and alleged victims in criminal cases:
First, a defendant may offer evidence of the defendant’s pertinent trait, and if the evidence is admitted, the prosecutor may offer evidence to rebut it. This gives a criminal defendant the option to present evidence to the jury to try to persuade them that his character is such that he could not have possibly committed the alleged crime. Once the defendant opens up that door, however, the prosecutor is free to produce evidence showing that the defendant’s character is in line with the crime committed.
Second, a defendant may offer evidence of an alleged victim’s pertinent trait, and if the evidence is admitted, the prosecutor may offer evidence to rebut it and
offer evidence of the defendant’s same trait.
Third, in a homicide case, the prosecutor may offer evidence of the alleged victim’s trait of peacefulness to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor.
Thus, in most criminal cases, character evidence is only admitted at the insistence of the defendant. This provides the defendant an opportunity because the defendant is aware of his own flaws and what evidence may be admitted against him to show a poor character.
How is Character Evidence Introduced
Rule 405 sets forth the manner in which character evidence may be introduced. Evidence of a person’s character may be introduced by opinion or reputation testimony. When evidence of a person’s character or character trait is admissible, it may be proved by testimony about the person’s reputation or by testimony in the form of an opinion. Thus, one may call witnesses to tell the jury how bad or good of a person the defendant or victim is. When such witnesses are called to testify they can greatly muddy the waters, but by doing so they can raise reasonable doubt to the jury in favor of the defendant or they can prejudice the jury against the witness. That is why the rule is so narrowly tailored to allow only very specific character evidence, which generally must be raised by the defendant.