Criminal Record, Character Evidence, and the Criminal Trial
Legal Theory 14 (2008): 167-91
42 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2012 Last revised: 30 Sep 2013
Date Written: 2008
The question addressed here is whether evidence concerning defendants’ past criminal records should be introduced at their trials because such evidence reveals their character and thus reveals whether they are the kinds of persons likely to have committed the crimes with which they are currently charged. I strongly caution against the introduction of such evidence for a number of reasons. First, the link between defendants’ past criminal records and claims about their standing dispositions to think and act is tenuous, at best. Second, noncharacter, or trace, evidence should have primacy in determining the guilt or innocence of defendants. Third, character evidence will vary in its freshness and specificity. Other things being equal, only relatively fresh and specific character evidence has probative value. Moreover, such evidence will have greater probative value in criminal cases where the issue before the court is whether a crime has been committed than in cases where the issue is whether it was the defendant who committed the crime. Finally, we might be more sanguine about the introduction of fresh and specific character evidence under conditions likely to work against its misuse or misinterpretation. However, the relevant conditions may not often be satisfied in the real world of criminal trials and defendants.
Keywords: character evidence, criminal trial, criminal procedure
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