EvidenceProf Blog

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

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Essential Reading: Supreme Court Of Iowa Implies That Victim's Violent Character Is Essential To Self-Defense Claim

Like its federal counterpart, Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.405(a) provides that

In all cases in which evidence of character or a trait of character of a person is admissible, proof may be made by testimony as to reputation or by testimony in the form of an opinion. On cross-examination, inquiry is allowable into relevant specific instances of conduct.

That said, like its federal counterpartIowa Rule of Evidence 5.405(b) provides 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 the person's conduct.

And under both Federal Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2) and Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.404(a)(2), a criminal defendant can present evidence of a pertinent character trait of the alleged victim. So, assume that a defendant is charged with domestic abuse assault and willful injury. And assume that the defendant claims self-defense. Is the alleged victim's character for violence an essential element of the defendant's defense, permitting him to prove the alleged victim's violence through specific instance evidence? According to the vast majority of courts, the answer is "no."  The recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Iowa in State v. Cashen, 2010 WL 2629827 (Iowa 2010), however, strongly implies that the answer is "yes."

In Cashen, the facts were as stated above, with Ross Cashen being the defendant and Chastity Schulmeister being the alleged victim. 

Cashen...employed a private investigator who acquired some of Schulmeister's mental health records from a medical office and a hospital. After the State learned Cashen had acquired these records, it filed a motion in limine to exclude the records, as well as other matters, from trial. The State also sought to preclude admission of Schulmeister's prior mental health history revealed in her deposition.

The district court denied the motion in limine. It found the mental health history of Schulmeister, specifically her propensities for violence and explosive behavior, was relevant to Cashen's defense of self-defense.

The state thereafter appealed this ruling, and the Supreme Court of Iowa found, inter alia, that the district court properly allowed defense counsel to inspect Schulmeister's mental health records.  The court did not reach the issue of whether the information revealed in those records was admissible under Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.405(b).

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Cady found that

When the defense of self-defense is raised,...evidence of a victim's quarrelsome or violent disposition may become relevant to help establish the victim as the initial aggressor or the state of mind of the defendant....Such evidence of the victim's character may be introduced through testimony concerning the victim's reputation or by opinion testimony of a witness familiar with the victim. Iowa R. Evid. 5.405(a). It may also be shown by specific conduct. Iowa R. Evid. 5.405(b).

Justice Cady found, however, that defense counsel should not have had had access to Schulmeister's mental health records based upon her need for privacy. So, according to the district court and the dissenting opinion, in a self-defense case, the defendant can present evidence of specific conduct by the victim to prove her propensity for violence under Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.405(b).

I have noted before why such a position is wrong. An individual's character is only an "essential element of a charge, claim, or defense" under Rule 405(b) if, well, it is an essential element, i.e., if a party can only prove a charge, claim or defense by proving the individual's character. If a plaintiff sues a city after being struck by a city bus being driven by a drunk city employee, he might sue the city for negligent hiring. But, how would the plaintiff prove this negligent hiring claim? He would have to prove that there was something in the employee's past which should have made the city not hire him. So, if the employee had 3 DUIs before the city hired him, the plaintiff could present this evidence as character evidence because it would be essential for him to prove that the city was negligent in hiring the employee.

Conversely, in a self-defense case, it is not essential for the defendant to prove the victim's violent character. There can be eyewitnesses to the subject altercation. Defensive wounds on the defendant could show that he was acting in self-defense. The jury could believe the defendant's testimony that he was attacked. Jurors could disbelieve the victim's testimony. Evidence that the victim is a violent person can help a self-defense claim but it is not essential to it; even generally peaceable people can engage in acts of aggression. Indeed, Iowa courts have previously held that specific act evidence is inadmissible to prove the alleged victim's violent character is self-defense cases. See, e.g., State v. Hebeler, 2001 WL 736025 (Iowa.App. 2001).



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