Thursday, May 30, 2013
Know Thy Enemy: How the Jodi Arias Trial Differed From the George Zimmerman Trial With Regard to Character Evidence
In yesterday's post, I argued that George ZImmerman should not be able to present evidence of specific instances of violent conduct by Trayvon Martin to support his claim of self-defense. In response, Rick Underwood left the following two comments:
1. Great. But that's not what happened in the Jodi Arias case. It all depends on who the defendant is!
2. The point of my previous post was that the Jodi Arias defense was self-defense. Then it morphed into "the guy was nasty" and "abusive." The defendant said whatever she wanted to (apparently nobody believed it). There seemed to be no rules of evidence involved. The expert testimony was pathetic.
Of course, the bottom line is that when death is on the table, the rules get thrown out. Maybe ok and maybe not.
I do agree with your analysis. It is spot on. My point is the the rules don't seem to matter in some cases with some defendants.
So, let's take a look at the Jodi Arias case and the Arizona Rules of Evidence.
Jodi Arias was charged with the murder of Travis Alexander. At trial, she claimed self-defense and was allowed to testify concerning alleged acts of domestic violence committed against her by Alexander. Why? Arizona Rule of Evidence 404(a) generally precludes the admission of propensity character evidence. That said, Arizona Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2) gives a criminal defendant the option of presenting evidence concerning the bad character of the alleged victim for a pertinent character trait, with the consequence being that the presentation of such evidence opens the door for the prosecution to present evidence concerning (1) the alleged victim's good character for that same trait; and/or (2) the defendant's bad character for that same trait.
Rule 405. Methods of Proving Character
(a) Reputation or opinion. 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.
(b) Specific instances of conduct. In cases in which character or a trait of character of a person is an essential element of a charge, claim, or defense, or pursuant to Rule 404(c), proof may also be made of specific instances of that person's conduct.
Courts generally hold that the alleged victim's character for violence is not an essential element of a defendant's claim of self defense, see, e.g., State v. Fish, 213 P.3d 258 (Ariz.App. Div. 1 2009), which is why I argued yesterday that George Zimmerman could not present evidence of specific instances of violence by Trayvon Martin. So, shouldn't the same have held true for Jodi Arias?
The answer to this question is "no" because there is one fundamental difference between the two cases: Arias knew her victim (and his alleged violent history) while George ZImmerman did not. Therefore, Arias could legitimately argue that she was presenting evidence of specific instances of violence by Alexander, not to prove his violent propensities, but to prove why she was in reasonable apprehension of him. As I noted yesterday, this is known as the "communicated character" theory of character evidence, and it is a theory that Arizona courts recognize.
As the Court of Appeals of Arizona noted in State v. Connor, 161 P.3d 596, 602 (Ariz.App. Div. 2007), "[t]he defendant may offer into evidence specific instances of violence committed by the victim...'if the defendant knew of them...or if they are directed toward third persons relating to or growing out of the same transaction, or so proximate in time and place and circumstances as would legitimately reflect upon the conduct or motives of the parties at the time of the affray.'"