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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Auld Lang Syne: Supreme Court Of Kentucky Finds Trial Court Properly Precluded Evidence Of Victim's Prior Drunk Fights In Newe Year's Eve Manslaughter Appeal

The recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Kentucky in Lake v. Commonwealth, 2008 WL 4691938 (Ky. 2008), reveals that a criminal defendant can only introduce evidence of specific prior acts of the victim in very limited circumstances.

In Lake, on New Year's Eve, 2004, in front of the house of Kenneth Vanover, a gunfight erupted between Vanover and Jack Lake, Jr.  Several shots were fired, both men were wounded, and Vanover's wounds proved fatal

After a jury trial, Lake was subsequently convicted of (1) manslaughter in the second-degree and (2) being a persistent felony offender in the first-degree.  Lake did not testify at trial, and the trial judge precluded him for presenting evidence at trial in support of his self-defense claim that Vanover had been arrested several times for fighting while drunk.

Lake subsequently appealed, claiming that the trial court improperly excluded this evidence because criminal defendants can present character evidence concerning the victim pursuant to Kentucky Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2) and specific prior act evidence pursuant to Kentucky Rule of Evidence 405(c), which states that:

     "In cases in which character or a trait of character of a person is an essential element of a charge, claim, or defense, proof may also be made of specific instances of that person's conduct."

According to the Kentucky Supremes, however, the problem for Lake was that (as I have noted before on this blog),

     "[a] homicide victim's character trait for violent behavior is not an essential element of the claim of self-defense.  It is not any element of self-defense.  It is simply an evidentiary fact that, when it exists, is relevant to establish the elements of self-defense."

The court also noted that evidence of a victim's prior violent acts can be admissible when the defendant is aware of those acts to prove that the defendant reasonably feared the victim.  But the problem for Lake was that he did not testify and presented no evidence that he was aware of Vanover's prior violent acts at the time that he shot him.

The court thus properly affirmed Lake's convictions because there was no evidentiary error.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2008/12/new-years-eve-l.html

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