Don’t Fear Character Evidence

By otmseo on August 24, 2020

Lawyers are often scared of character evidence. They fear that even bringing in vague good character evidence will open the door for bad character evidence in rebuttal.

When Is Character Evidence Admissible?

California law says character evidence is admissible “if offered by the defendant to prove his conduct in conformity with such character or trait of character.”

California allows three kinds of character evidence to be admitted. The most common type of character evidence admitted is reputation evidence. People testify about defendant’s positive or negative reputation within a community of a character trait. Second, there’s opinion evidence. People testify about their personal opinion of the defendant. People with personal knowledge of the defendant usually testify. Third, there’s specific acts evidence. The judge is least likely to admit evidence of specific acts. The judge will not permit it if the jury will be prejudiced or confused by evidence of similar acts by the defendant if they are to similar to the case at hand.

When Can It Open the Door To Negative Character Evidence?

Once the defendant offers evidence showing that committing the crime (or some aspect of the crime) was not in conformity with their general character, the prosecution may offer character evidence rebutting the evidence adduced by the defendant. California Evidence Code Section 1102.

Recently the California Supreme Court clarified this by throwing out a death conviction after the prosecution rebutted the defendant’s good character evidence by presenting evidence of the defendant’s racist and white supremacist views. The defense put on character evidence that defendant was a good father, a good husband a good provider and had readily accepted responsibility other times he had been arrested. To rebut this, the prosecutor put on evidence of defendant’s belief in the superiority of the white race.

The court held that what the prosecutor did was wrong. Wrong enough to reverse the jury’s death finding. The court held that the trial judge was wrong for admitting it. And that he improperly corrected the jury when he instructed the jury that:

“defendant’s beliefs, allegiance, and tattoos are entitled to First Amendment protection. But [his instruction] did not inform the jury that it was permitted to consider the evidence for certain purposes (for example, to evaluate defendant’s violent propensities) and not others (to conclude defendant has bad character because he holds morally reprehensible beliefs).”

People v. Young, Cal Supreme Court 2019.

As morally repugnant as the defendants views are, “the First Amendment prohibits the introduction of this evidence for the purpose for which it was used at the penalty retrial, we find error.” People v Young.

How Can This Help You?

So the lesson to be learned is that by putting on defendant’s friends and relatives to say they are a good person you are not opening your client up to the introduction of any crazy thing the prosecution dredges up. There are most certainly limits to what may be admitted in rebuttal. The defense bar shouldn’t be afraid of using character evidence in your defense.

Make sure when you go to court on your case that your lawyer is armed with and confident enough to use character evidence if it will help your case. If you’re in a case that relies on your good character or any case, call me at 213-479-5322 to discuss.

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