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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

It's What You Did To Me: Supreme Judicial Court Of Maine Vacates Assault Conviction Based Upon Improperly Excluded Character Evidence

The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine has vacated the misdemeanor assault conviction of Michael R. Laferriere in State v. Laferriere, 2008 WL 1723709 (Me. 2008), based upon the conclusion that the trial judge improperly excluded evidence of past violent acts by the victim.  In August 2006, Laferriere and the victim, his then girlfriend, engaged in a physical altercation in their shared residence. The Sheriff's Department was called, and the victim told the responding deputy sheriff that Laferriere initiated the confrontation by punching her while she was sitting on the couch. She also explained that she subsequently destroyed Laferriere's property with a knife sharpener so that Laferriere would allow her to leave.

At trial, however, the victim testified that Laferriere did not punch her until after she "went after" his property with a large knife.  Meanwhile, Laferriere testified that the victim initiated the confrontation and that he physically struggled with her in defense of himself and his property.  Laferriere then sought to testify to prior violent acts the victim allegedly committed against him in order to show the reasonableness of his fear of imminent harm, but the State objected. The trial court sustained the objection, explaining that it would not permit evidence of the victim's prior bad acts.  After Laferriere was convicted, he appealed, and his appeal eventually reached the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine.

That Court first noted that generally under Maine Rule of Evidence 404, evidence of a person's prior bad acts are inadmissible to prove that the person has a propensity to act in a certain manner and thus that they likely acted in conformity with that propensity at the time in question.  In other words, evidence of the victim's past violent acts would be inadmissible to prove that she had a propensity to be violent and thus that she likely was acting violently when Laferriere assaulted her.

The Court further noted, however, that while evidence of a victim's prior bad acts is not admissible to prove propensity/conformity, when an accused raises the defenses of self-defense or defense of property, evidence of the victim's prior bad acts which are proven to have been known to the accused before the event are admissible "for the purpose of showing his reasonable apprehension of immediate danger."  The Court thus found that the trial judge erred in precluding Laferriere's proposed testimony and concluded that "because the court disbelieved Laferriere's version of the events due, in part, to its finding that the degree of force Laferriere exercised in purported self-defense 'far exceeded what was reasonable,' we cannot say that it is highly probable that the error did not affect the outcome of the trial."  While some courts hold differently, most courts have a similar dichotomy with regard to character evidence, see, e.g., Harris v. United States, 618 A.2d 140, 144 (D.C. 1992), and I think that the majority of courts are correct, as long as limiting instructions are used.

-CM

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