EvidenceProf Blog

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

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Character Of The Matter, Take 2: Iowa Judge Precludes Specific Act Character Evidence In Murder Trial

Yesterday, I posted an entry about how criminal defendants claiming self-defense generally can present opinion and reputation testimony concerning the victim's character for violence but generally cannot present specific act testimony concerning the victim's character for violence. Well, a current case in Iowa presents another example of this dichotomy.

Christopher Seigfried is currently standing trial in Iowa for the first-degree murder of Clarence Overlhulser. Seigfried does not dispute that he swung a homemade cast iron sword, striking Overhulser on the side of the head with the handle part, cutting four inches deep into the brain, and killing Overlhulser.

But Seigfried claims, as when he was arrested, that he was defending himself from a much bigger, and perhaps, a drunker man, who became upset about a game of pool they played the night before. He has said the man barged into his basement apartment and threatened to kill him. 

Specifically, "Seigfried, through his attorneys, maintains Overhulser tackled him, and in the heat of the moment, he grabbed the sword and swung it." In support of this self defense defense, Seigfried attempted to have character witnesses testify regarding their unpleasant experiences with Overlhulser. The trial judge, however, found their testimony inadmissible, and, for the reasons noted in yesterday's post, the judge was correct.

Like its federal counterpartIowa Rule of Evidence 5.404a(2)(A) provides that

Evidence of a person's character or a trait of the person's character is not admissible for the purpose of proving that the person acted in conformity therewith on a particular occasion, except...[i]n criminal cases. Subject to rule 5.412, 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 in any case where the victim is unavailable to testify due to death or physical or mental incapacity to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor.  

However, like its federal counterpartIowa Rule of Evience 5.405 provides that

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, proof may also be made of specific instances of the person's conduct.

Thus, while Seigfried could have had character witnesses provide reputation and/or opinion testimony concerning Overlhulser's character for violence, those witnesses could not relate their specific unpleasant experiences with him to prove his character for violence (because, as noted yesterday, the victim's character for violence is not an essential element of a self defense claim).



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