EvidenceProf Blog

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

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Court of Appeals of Arizona Finds Character Isn't "In Issue" in a Third Party Culpability Case

Similar to its federal counterpart, Arizona Rule of Evidence 405(b) provides that

When a person's character or character trait is an essential element of a charge, claim, or defense, or pursuant to Rule 404(c), the character or trait may also be proved by relevant specific instances of the person's conduct.
There are a limited number of cases in which a person's character is an essential element of a charge, claim, or defense: (1) entrapment; (2) negligent hiring/supervision; (3) defamation; and (4) insanity. But what about a case in which the defendant claims third party culpability? That was the question addressed by the Court of Appeals of Arizona in its recent opinion in State v. Schmidtfranz, 2021 WL 755090 (Ariz.App. 2021).

In Schmidtfranz, Peter John Schmidtfranz was charged with child abuse against two year-old I.W. At his second trial, Schmidtfranz presented the theory that his girlfriend, M.J. was the one who had abused I.W. (her son). After he was convicted, Schmidtfranz appealed, claiming that the trial judge erred

in allowing the jury to view video evidence of a patient M.J. conducting I.W.’s nighttime routine while I.W. was fussy....At a pretrial hearing before the second trial, Schmidtfranz argued this evidence was inadmissible because it was a “specific act portrayed in [a] video.” The court admitted the evidence because “to the extent [Schmidtfranz] wishe[d] to present [M.J.] as a third-party culpability candidate...[to ask] about her abusive behavior or to establish that she is an abusive parent, it open[ed] the door for evidence that conflicts with that.”

On appeal, the court held that

For character to be an “essential element” the evidence must prove an element “to make out a prima facie case for a claim or defense.”...If the accused can successfully make the defense without offering the evidence regarding character, it cannot be regarded as “essential.”... It necessarily follows that if the state can rebut the defense without offering evidence regarding character, it is nonessential.

We agree with Schmidtfranz that character was not an essential element of his third-party defense. Arizona's Rule 405(b) is identical in relevant part to the federal rule (emphasis added).

This seems like the right ruling. To win on his third party culpability claim, Schmidtfranz didn't have to prove that M.J. had a character for abusing her son and acted in conformity with that propensity at the time of the child abuse. Instead, he simply had to prove that M.J. abused I.W. at the time in question, which he could (theoretically) prove even if she was generally a peaceful person. Therefore, M.J.'s character was not an essential element of Schmidtfranz's defense and Rule 405(b) was not triggered.



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