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The Use of Character Evidence in a Criminal Trial

A natural instinct or impulse of individuals accused of a crime or offense is to seek to prove their innocence by presenting evidence intended to prove their honest or law-abiding character, in the hopes that it would ultimately exculpate them. At a criminal proceeding, they may wish to call such witnesses, who are familiar with their personality, history and character traits that they believe would tend to demonstrate that the individual did not commit the crime in question, because they assert that such conduct would be inconsistent with the character they seek to portray at trial. However, there are strict procedural limitations in criminal proceedings that restrict how and when this type of evidence may be presented at a criminal trial.

The general rule is that evidence of character is inadmissible for the purpose of showing that conduct that occurred at a prior time is proof that the same conduct occurred on the occasion in question. These evidentiary rules are designed to protect the defendant’s case from exposure to bias or misapprehension by the jury. These evidentiary rules seek to prevent the fact-finder from basing its decisions on facts outside of relevant facts presented at trial, rather than on an individual’s past or background. The justice system seeks to avoid the conviction of a defendant based on facts or information outside the scope of the jury’s deliberation and purview.

Misleading of the jury may occur, due to the fact that the evidentiary rules permit the prosecution to introduce pertinent character evidence to rebut the evidence pertaining to character traits, presented by the defendant, once the defendant introduces evidence of a positive character trait. In legal parlance, this is commonly known as “opening the door” to the use of character evidence against him. If the defendant does not open the door by placing his character in issue, the government is not permitted to bring in its own evidence of the defendant’s character.

Rule 404(2) of the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence allows a defendant in a criminal case to introduce evidence of his own character, which allows criminal defendants to bring witnesses to demonstrate certain positive character traits. Such evidence may be used to prove such facts as relate to motive for a crime, opportunity to commit a crime, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.

When character is admissible, Rule 405 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence provides that character may be proved by testimony pertaining to a person’s reputation in the community concerning a given character trait. Character evidence, however, may not be presented by a witness acquainted with the person, to give a personal opinion, as to the trait in issue. Finally, Rule 405 says that character may not be proved by introducing evidence of specific acts that supposedly illustrate a particular trait, unless character is directly in issue.

If you are facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania, contact the criminal defense lawyers at Tanner Law Offices. Our team of skilled professionals is prepared to defend you through this challenging time and ensure your rights are fully protected. Please contact our office at 717-836-0471 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.