Thursday, March 22, 2012
(a) Reputation or Opinion. In all cases in which evidence of a person's character or character trait is admissible, proof may be made by testimony as to reputation or by testimony in the form of an opinion. In a criminal case, to be qualified to testify at the guilt stage of trial concerning the character or character trait of an accused, a witness must have been familiar with the reputation, or with the underlying facts or information upon which the opinion is based, prior to the day of the offense. In all cases where testimony is admitted under this rule, on cross-examination inquiry is allowable into relevant specific instances of conduct.
(b) Specific Instances of Conduct. In cases in which a person's character or character trait is an essential element of a charge, claim or defense, proof may also be made of specific instances of that person's conduct.
So, in which cases is a person's character trait an essential element of a charge, claim, or defense, allowing for the admission of specific instances of conduct? The classic ones are negligent hiring/supervision, defamation, and entrapment. But what about insanity cases? Let's take a look at the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Texas, Dallas, in Beckett v. State, 2012 WL 955358 (Tex.App.-Dallas 2012).
In Beckett, Anthony Beckett was convicted of intentionally and knowingly causing serious bodily injury to a child fourteen years of age or younger (Christopher). At trial, Beckett asserted "insanity" as an affirmative defense to the crime charged. After he was convicted, Beckett appealed, claiming, inter alia, that
specific instances of conduct were admissible under rule of evidence 405(b) to prove his "character of insanity."...Beckett contend[ed] that specific instances of his conduct that occurred years prior to Christopher's death were related to Beckett's history of severe mental illness. He argue[d] that the trial court's prohibition of lay testimony regarding those instances "undercut the impact of the testimony" of [two witnesses]. At trial, Beckett's defense counsel proffered that witnesses...would have testified regarding specific instances in which Beckett reported God talking to him, reported God writing to him in the snow, and reported or believed that a devil was after him. Beckett argue[d] that had the jury heard the excluded evidence, there is a reasonable probability that the result of the trial would have been different.
The Court of Appeals of Texas, Dallas, disagreed, finding that even if the exclusion of this evidence was error, it was harmless because this character evidence was admitted through the testimony of other witnesses. The implication of this conclusion was that this evidence should have been admissible under Texas Rule of Evidence 405(b) because it was admitted through other witnesses as well. Therefore, the implication is that the defendant's character is an essential element of an insanity defense. And indeed, a review of other case law, including Knight v. State, 907 So.2d 470 (Ala.Crim.App. 2004), reveals that other courts have reached such a conclusion.