Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Communication Breakdown: Supreme Court of Mississippi Reverses Murder Conviction Based on Character Evidence Error
Evidence of a pertinent trait of character of the victim of the crime offered by an accused, or by the prosecution to rebut the same, or evidence of a character trait of peacefulness of the victim offered by the prosecution to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor
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.
In other words, while a criminal defendant can present evidence of the alleged victim's bad character for violence, he generally can only prove that character on direct examination through opinion and reputation testimony. But what if the defendant has awareness of the alleged victim's prior bad acts? Let's take a look at the opinion of the Supreme Court of Mississippi in Richardson v. State, 2014 WL 2894439 (Miss. 2014).
In Richardson, Harvill Richardson was charged with murdering Rudy Quilon. After the shooting that led to the murder charge, Richardson called 911 and explained how he shot Quilon because he was approaching him in a threatening manner and knew of his violent, felonious criminal history. At trial, Richardson sought to admit evidence, including the 911 call, of his awareness of Quilon's violent past in support of his claim of self-defense. The trial court, however, deemed this evidence inadmissible, concluding "that Quilon's convictions were too remote in time to be relevant and that their probative value was outweighed by their prejudicial impact."
After Richardson was convicted, he appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court erred by deeming evidence of Quilon's prior convictions inadmissible. The Supreme Court of Mississippi agreed, finding that "Richardson clearly and forcefully attempted to use the prior criminal history, not to show propensity, but to show his state of mind, that is, that at the time of the shooting, he feared Quilon, and that his fear was reasonable."
This is what I have previously referred to as the communicated character theory of admissibility. In other words, Richardson was not trying to use the prior convictions to prove that Quilon had a propensity toward violence and likely acted in conformity with that propensity at the time of his death. Instead, Richardson was simply proving how his knowledge of Quilon's violent past put him in reasonable apprehension of Quilon.