The Death of a Youth and of a Drunkard: A Remarkable Story of Habit and Character in New Jersey
EVIDENCE STORIES, Richard Lempert, ed., Foundation Press, 2006
26 Pages Posted: 27 Apr 2006
In many ways the case was unremarkable. It involved a traffic fatality that may have involved drunken driving, a tragic but common occurrence. This unremarkable case - the criminal action of State of New Jersey v. Petro Radziwil, Indictment No. 1257-8-86 - is nevertheless noteworthy. Radziwil raises important questions about an important part of the law of evidence: the relationship between habit evidence and character evidence. But the questions that Radziwil presents reach beyond the law of evidence. The criminal justice system is disproportionately populated with unsavory people, unpleasant people, stubborn people, and strong-willed people. Criminal defendants are frequently both unsavory and unpleasant, and many witnesses - including prosecution witnesses - share these traits. Prosecutors and criminal defense counsel, although not as a rule unsavory, can be unusually strong-willed and stubborn, and judges who preside in criminal cases may become hardened not just to the suffering of victims but also to the plights of those who cause harm. This combination of character traits has the making of a toxic brew. There is reason to worry about the capacity of strong-willed actors such as police officers and trial judges - to make sound judgments about the unpleasant and unsavory people - criminal defendants and witnesses - that they routinely encounter while performing their assigned chores in the criminal justice system. The story of Radziwil illustrates how personal likes and dislikes, and the prejudices of actors in the criminal process, can affect the outcomes of criminal proceedings. The story of Radziwil also raises the question of whether much can be done to scrub the criminal process clean of the influence of the biases and emotions of the people who shape that process.
Keywords: law of evidence, habit, character, prejudice
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