Character is a general quality usually attributed to a person. When we say someone has "good character," we generally mean they're a trustworthy and decent person; but this is also somewhat vague and subjective. And just because someone is known to have positive character traits doesn't mean they're incapable of committing a given crime. Furthermore, the problem with using character evidence at trial is that it can distort the facts and prejudice the jury despite the material evidence.
Serial killer Ted Bundy, for example, went out of his way to exude positive character traits in public and was able to evade authorities because of it. In fact, he worked as a crisis counselor for sexual assault victims even though he would later confess to the sexual assault and murder of dozens of women.
Still, it's also true that past behavior is a strong indicator of future behavior. So how is character evidence used in criminal (and even civil) trials? We explore this issue below.
The Admissibility of Character Evidence
Generally, under criminal law, character evidence can't be used in court to show that the person acted on a particular occasion in conformity with a particular character trait. For example, a defendant's tendency to over-exaggerate or lie to friends and family can't be used as evidence that he defrauded others out of money or property.
But the defendant, on the other hand, may use character evidence (such as opinions of neighbors or coworkers) to illustrate their own character as long as it's relevant to the crime at hand. And while the prosecution may not introduce such character evidence, they may challenge any character evidence brought up by the defense.
Character Evidence and the Sentencing Stage
Even though character evidence generally isn't allowed during the trial phase to show that a person acted a certain way, it's frequently introduced during the sentencing stage. Prosecutors often introduce evidence of past misconduct or personality flaws to show that a convicted defendant merits a greater sentence. For example, a convicted person who violated the terms of parole following a prior incarceration would more likely be detained without parole in the future.
Alternatively, defense attorneys often introduce character witnesses during the sentencing phase to attest to defendants' positive traits and deeds. For example, convicted murderer Stanley "Tookie" Williams was executed for multiple gang-related murders in the Los Angeles area in 2005. But many organizations (along with his defense team) argued that his life should be spared because of the positive work he did while incarcerated promoting non-violence and alternatives to street gangs.
Character vs. Habit
Habit, on the other hand, can be used as evidence in certain circumstances. A habit is a behavior that's specific, regular, and consistently repeated. It doesn't describe a personality or character trait of the person, but something he or she does habitually, or regularly. Therefore, someone's habits or tendencies may be considered directly relevant to the case, especially in stalking cases where the criminal act is defined by a pattern of behavior.
For instance, if the defendant visited a certain coffee shop every morning for years, that fact could be used as evidence that he was probably at the coffee shop on the morning it was robbed. Occasionally, some character traits can be linked with a habit, so the distinction between the two can be hard to make at times.
Character Evidence in Civil Suits
In civil suits, similar to criminal cases, evidence that a person has a certain character trait generally can't be used to prove that the person acted in conformity with that character trait on a particular occasion. Character evidence may be proved where it's an integral issue in a dispute, as in defamation cases, or where a party puts character in issue.
A few jurisdictions do allow defendants to introduce character evidence in certain types of civil actions, such as assault and battery, to show that they acted within their normal range of character.
Have an Attorney Evaluate the Evidence Against You
If you're charged with a crime, the verdict will rest on a variety of evidence, which may include character evidence (in limited situations). A skilled legal professional will be able to evaluate the evidence, file motions for exclusion, and determine the best way to challenge any evidence used in court. Get started today by reaching out to a skilled criminal defense attorney near you.