EvidenceProf Blog

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

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Begging You For Mercy: When Does a Mercy Rule Violation Necessitate a Reversal?

Federal Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2)(A) provides that

a defendant may offer evidence of the defendant’s pertinent trait, and if the evidence is admitted, the prosecutor may offer evidence to rebut it....

Under this "mercy rule," then, a criminal defendant can present evidence has his good character for a pertinent character trait. But if the trial court errs in excluding such evidence, is the defendant entitled to a reversal? That was the question addressed by the Fifth Circuit in its recent opinion in United States v. DeLeon, 2013 WL 4606580 (5th Cir. 2013).

In De Leon, Juan De Leon was charged with conspiracy, health-care fraud, and aggravated identify theft. After he was convicted, he appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the district court erred by precluding him from presenting evidence of his law-abiding character. The Fifth Circuit agreed, finding that evidence of his goof character was admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2)(A).

That left the question of whether De Leon's conviction should be reversed. De Leon claimed that it should because his credibility and the question of whether he satisfied the mens reas of the crimes charged was the central issue at trial, with courts typically reversing in such circumstances when good character evidence is improperly excluded.

The court disagreed, finding that they key fact was that, unlike the case before it, the cases cited by the defendant involved "simply the defendant's word against the word of another." Instead,

The government presented overwhelming evidence of De Leon's knowing submission of fraudulent claims, including testimony from employees who he instructed to forge delivery receipts. And, as noted, the government introduced De Leon's signed statement in which he admitted that he had submitted fraudulent claims. In light of all that evidence, there is no meaningful probability that the jury would have acquitted De Leon, even if it had heard his mother and another unidentified individual testify that he was law-abiding. Although the district court erred in excluding that testimony, we are satisfied that the error was harmless, and we affirm his convictions.



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