Recognizing Character: A New Perspective on Character Evidence

By Anderson, Barrett J. | The Yale Law Journal, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Recognizing Character: A New Perspective on Character Evidence


Anderson, Barrett J., The Yale Law Journal


NOTE CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

  I. CHARACTER EVIDENCE DEFINED?

 II. CHARACTER EVIDENCE REASONING
     A. The Basic Structure of the Federal Rules of Evidence
     B. The Logical Relevance of Character Evidence
     C. The Rationale Behind the Character Evidence Scheme
     D. Empirical Evidence

III. THE COMPONENTS OF CHARACTER
     A. Support from a Textualist Perspective
     B. Support from a Purposivist Perspective

 IV. THE FRAMEWORK FOR RECOGNIZING CHARACTER
     A. The Basic Overview
     B. The Propensity Prong
     C. The Morality Prong

  V. THREE CHARACTER EVIDENCE CASE STUDIES
     A. Alcoholism as an Example
     B. Homosexuality as an Example
     C. Mental Disorders as an Example
 VI. IMPLICATIONS OF THE FRAMEWORK
     A. Advantages of the Framework
     B. Potential Concerns with the Framework

CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION

"I am unable to do what all the text-writers and other legal authorities have failed to do. I am unable to outline the contours of the term 'character' in Rule 404...."

Chief Justice Seth D. Montgomery, New Mexico Supreme Court (1)

Character in the law of evidence is an enigma. Advances in psychological research over the past few decades have drastically altered modern conceptions of character and, in the process, have created the potential for confusion as courts determine the admissibility of character evidence. (2) For example, under the law of evidence, is alcoholism a trait of character or of genetics? Should an individual's sexual preference be analyzed as character or something else entirely? Could someone's mental illness be considered part of that person's character? Finding answers to questions like these is critically important because it will often determine whether or not special rules of evidence apply and, therefore, whether or not the proof is admissible. (3) Indeed, classifying proof as character evidence can be the difference between life and death for criminal defendants. (4) Unfortunately, the Federal Rules of Evidence do not define character, (5) and worse still, there is no judicially manageable definition of character for courts to apply when the admissibility of evidence turns on this determination. (6) This Note aims to address this problem by proposing a framework to help courts find an answer to the age-old question: what is this thing called character evidence?

Character proof can have enormous consequences on trial outcomes because of how character is perceived by ordinary people. It seems intuitive that people have something within them called "characters," composed of "character traits," (7) and that these traits influence the way that people behave. For example, if Sally has the character trait of altruism, then an observer might believe it less likely that she committed a theft. Likewise, if Bob has the character trait of violence, then that same observer might think it more likely that he committed an assault. Indeed, as psychological studies have repeatedly demonstrated, popular wisdom holds that character is strongly determinative of future conduct. (8) In other words, society believes that if you know a person's character, then you can most likely predict how that person will act in a future instance. But what exactly is this internal force? Defining character as simply someone's propensity to act in a certain way does not distinguish between what is commonly perceived as character and other propensity-based qualities that courts have recognized are not character, (9) such as habits, (10) mental illnesses and genetic attributes, (11) skills and abilities, (12) or other traits of personality. (13) Without a consistent and reliable way to distinguish between these types of propensity evidence, courts may admit seriously prejudicial proof or exclude important and relevant evidence. (14)

Courts are cautious of character proof for two primary reasons: a jury could (1) believe that character played a greater role in the defendant's actions than it truly did, (15) or (2) convict a defendant for the kind of person he is rather than for what he did. …

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