EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry: West Virginia Court Will Likely Exclude Character Evidence In Ex-Attorney Murder Case

Stephen R. Fielder, previously a West Virginia lawyer, has been charged with murdering his ex-wife.  His ex-wife's body was found dismembered into parts that were stuffed into several suitcases by a creek.

Fielder is trying to raise a diminished capacity defense based upon the claim that he has damage to his thalmus as the result of several strokes he suffered.  On the other hand, the prosecutor expects to request that past examples of Stephen Fielder's alleged "explosive temper" be admissible at trial.

Fielder's attempted claim has a much greater chance of success than does the prosecutor's request.  Like Federal Rule of Evidence 404, under West Virginia Rule of Evidence 404, character evidence is generally inadmissible to prove that a person had a propensity to act in a certain manner and that he/she acted in conformity with that propensity at the time in question (e.g., Fielder had a propensity to get extremely angry and thus likely acted in conformity with his propensity for getting extremely angry when killing his wife).

As under the Federal Rules, Rule 404(a) of the West Virginia Code of Evidence does allow a criminal defendant to open up the door and present evidence of his good character (e.g., Fielder could present evidence that he is a non-violent person), and then the prosecutor could present evidence of his bad character.  But before the prosecutor can present bad character evidence, the defendant has to present good character evidence.

Furthermore, even were character evidence to come in through this Rule (there's no indication that Fielder will present good character evidence), Rule 405(a) of the West Virginia Code of Evidence (like its fedral counterpart) only allows character to be proven through opinion and reputation evidence (e.g., a neighbor testifying (a) that in his opinion he thinks that Fielder is violent/non-violent, or (b) that Fielder has a reputation in the community for being violent/non-violent).

The "past acts" claimed by the prosecutor would thus be an impermissible form of character evidence in this case.

-CM

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