Len Niehoff is Professor from Practice at the University of Michigan Law School, where he teaches courses in civil procedure, ethics, evidence, First Amendment, law & theology, and media law. He writes regularly in all of these fields. He is also Of Counsel to the Honigman law firm. The opinions expressed here are his own.
Monday, October 22, 2012
We usually do not admit evidence of a criminal defendant's character at trial. We want the defendant to be judged based on what the facts show about how he or she behaved on a particular occasion. We worry about evidence that might prompt the jury to convict someone of a crime on the theory that he or she is a generally bad person who deserves to be behind bars--regardless of guilt with respect to this particular offense.
Still, evidence of character can find its way into criminal cases. For example, a defendant who claims to have acted in self-defense can offer evidence showing that the victim had a tendency toward violent behavior. Indeed, just last week the judge in the George Zimmerman case indicated that he would allow Zimmerman's attorney to seek Trayvon Martin's Twitter, Facebook, and school records to troll for evidence that Martin was a violent person. You can read about the ruling here.
Of course, at this point we don't know whether Zimmerman's lawyer will succeed in obtaining the records, what he will find, or whether what he finds (if anything) will be admissible into evidence. So, many things remain unclear. But this much is fairly clear: if Zimmerman puts Martin's character at issue, this will probably open the door for the prosecution to do the same with respect to Zimmerman's character as well.
Perhaps Zimmerman's lawyer is on to a brilliant strategy.
Or perhaps he is playing one-move chess.