Character In Criminal Trials

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 What Is Criminal Law?

Criminal law is an area of law that governs many issues that arise during law enforcement arrests and investigations based on the suspicion of criminal activity. Criminal law governs:

  • Indictments;
  • Accusations;
  • Criminal pleas;
  • Trials; and
  • Other related issues.

In addition, criminal law governs issues associated with probation or parole as well as requests for expunging or sealing criminal records. Criminal offenses may be broken down into many general categories, including:

  • Crimes against a person: This category includes:
    • homicide;
    • assault and battery;
    • domestic violence;
    • robbery; and
    • sexual assault;
  • White collar crimes: This category includes:
    • tax evasion;
    • racketeering; and
    • securities fraud;
  • Non-violent crimes: This category includes:
    • drug crimes;
    • driving under the influence (DUI);
    • gun possession; and
    • drug trafficking; and
  • Crimes against property: This category includes:
    • larceny;
    • burglary;
    • embezzlement;
    • false pretenses; and
    • petty theft.

What Is a Criminal Case?

Criminal cases are court proceedings where a defendant is tried for illegal conduct according to the state’s legislature or the government. A criminal case generally begins after an individual is arrested and informed of the charges against them, typically at a hearing called an indictment.

In criminal cases, a defendant is always considered innocent until they are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a state or federal prosecutor. A judge tries the majority of criminal cases in the presence of a jury.

These trials may result in sentences for a defendant under the applicable criminal laws, which may include jail time, criminal fines, or a combination of both.

How Do Criminal Cases Proceed?

Once a defendant has been charged with a crime, every criminal court will follow the same procedures and processes, including:

  • Arraignment: This is when a defendant appears in court, and the charges against them are formally recorded and read before a judge;
  • Preliminary hearing: During an evidentiary hearing, the district attorney is required to show the court that there is enough evidence to charge the defendant for the crime at hand;
  • Pre-trial conference: This is a court hearing intended to resolve any pending issues before going into a formal trial;
  • Plea hearing: A plea hearing is when a defendant enters a plea of either guilty or not guilty. At this stage, a prosecutor may offer some form of agreement to the defendant;
  • Trial: This is a hearing in which evidence is presented to a judge or jury, and they will determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt;
  • Sentencing: Sentencing is the court’s decision regarding the penalties that will be placed on the defendant for the crime that the defendant was convicted of; and
  • Appeal: This is the stage in which the defendant may appeal their case. Appeals may be filed at any time after sentencing.

What Is Character Evidence?

The evidence presented to the jury is crucial during a criminal trial. Because of this, a defense attorney may make numerous tactical decisions regarding a case.

A defense attorney may argue that certain evidence is not admissible in any criminal case. The arguments a defense attorney may present are numerous.

Examples of these arguments include that law enforcement:

A defense attorney may argue that numerous different types of evidence are not admissible in motion-in-limine hearings. These hearings involve hearing pre-trial motions, which occur long before a jury is selected.

Character evidence is one type of evidence a defense attorney may want to exclude. Many individuals often associate character evidence with moral qualities.

Character evidence, however, may also include:

  • Non-moral characteristics;
  • Behavioral tendencies; and
  • Patterns of life.

These may not involve any morality issues, for example, being shy or careful. Although character evidence may concern an individual’s moral qualities, it is not limited to their moral behavior.

What Evidence is Admissible in Court?

For evidence to be admissible in court, the evidence is required to be:

  • Relevant;
  • Material; and
  • Competent.

Relevant evidence has a reasonable tendency to prove or disprove a fact. Relevant does not mean that it conclusively proves a specific fact.

Instead, it makes a fact that is of consequences more or less probable than it would be without that particular evidence. Even if it is determined that evidence is relevant, it must also be legally relevant.

To be legally relevant, the probative value of the evidence must substantially outweigh the following:

  • Any danger of unfair prejudice;
  • Confusion of the jury;
  • Waste of time; and
  • The possibility of misleading the jury.

Why Is Character Evidence Generally Excluded?

In general, the rule is that character is irrelevant to whether an individual committed a crime. For example, if a defendant is known to steal cars for joyrides, it does not mean they are responsible for every car stolen.

The prosecution has the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant stole the actual vehicle at issue in the case.

If evidence is considered inadmissible, it cannot be used in court during a hearing or trial to prove a fact that is at issue in the case. One example is when a witness statement is deemed irrelevant because it does not prove or disprove any fact in the case.

In that situation, the witness statement cannot be entered into the record as evidence and cannot be used by either the prosecution or the defense to prove or disprove a fact at issue.

This evidence would not be presented to a judge or a jury. All pieces of evidence must be carefully reviewed and analyzed in preparation for a hearing or a trial.

In general, this requires the assistance of an experienced trial lawyer in a civil case and a criminal defense attorney in a criminal case. An attorney will have knowledge and training regarding the rules of evidence for the court in which the proceeding occurs, whether state or federal.

When Can the Prosecutor Introduce Character Evidence?

When a prosecutor can introduce character evidence often depends on the decisions of the defense attorney when the case goes to trial. If a defendant has demonstrated good character, for example, by doing community service, saving kids from a burning building, or, generally, being a saint, a defense attorney will likely want to discuss their client’s character with the jury.

However, it is important to be aware that once the defense attorney presents this evidence and opens the door, it cannot be closed. This means that the prosecution can then point out the flaws in the defendant’s character and attack those with impunity.

There are certain exceptions to character evidence, including criminal convictions. For the most part, however, character evidence will not be admissible by the prosecution.

The Federal Rules of Evidence permit evidence of an individual’s character or character trait to be admitted in court but not to prove that the individual conducted themselves consistently with that trait or character on the particular occasion at issue. A complex set of exceptions applies to character evidence regarding the defendant and the victim in criminal trials.

It is important to note that these exceptions do not apply at civil trials.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Character evidence is a very complex issue in criminal trials. Whether or not to present character evidence is a major one.

If you are facing criminal charges, you should consult with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Your lawyer can advise you of the possibilities and consequences of presenting character evidence in your case.

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