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Can You Submit Character Evidence as Part of Your Criminal Defense?

In general, a Maryland prosecutor cannot introduce evidence of your “character” to prove guilt. A trial is supposed to determine if you committed a particular crime, not whether you are a person of bad character who was possibly inclined to commit a crime. That said, as the defendant you do have a right to offer evidence regarding a “pertinent trait of character,” which the prosecution can then attempt to rebut.

Maryland Courts Now Apply Three-Part Test Before Admitting or Rejecting Character Trait Evidence

For example, if you are accused of rape, you could offer character evidence regarding your past history of “sexual peacefulness or sexual propriety” to establish you are not someone inclined to commit violent sexual offenses. This issue came up in a recent unreported decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Gonzalez v. State, where a defendant received a new trial after such character evidence was improperly excluded from his original trial.

In this case, Montgomery County prosecutors accused the defendant or raping a woman while she was unconscious. The defendant testified at trial that the sex was consensual and took place while both parties were conscious. The defense also attempted to call five witnesses, all individuals who were in “prior sexual relationships” with the defendant. The defense said these witnesses would establish the defendant was non-violent when it came to his sexual habits. The prosecution objected, arguing this testimony was irrelevant, and the judge agreed.

Following the defendant’s conviction, he appealed, citing the trial court’s decision to exclude his eyewitness testimony as legal error. The Court of Special Appeals agreed and ordered a new trial. The appellate court explained what the defense offered was admissible character evidence under Maryland law. Specifically, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a decision in another case last year, Vigna v. State, which established a three-part test for trial courts to apply in these situations.

This test basically says that when a defendant seeks to introduce character evidence, the trial court must decide the following:

  • Does the particular quality identified by the defendant constitute a “trait of character”;
  • If so, is the proffered evidence of such character trait “pertinent” to the issue before the alleged crime; and
  • If the answers to the first two questions was yes, then is the probative value of the evidence “outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.”

Although the Vigna decision was issued after the trial of the defendant in Gonzalez, the Court of Special Appeals said it would still apply the new rule. In doing so, the appellate court said the trial judge did err in excluding the five character witnesses offered by the defendant. Given that the defendant and his accuser “presented two diametrically opposing version of events,” the defendant was entitled to show he did not have a history of engaging in non-consensual, violent sex with women.

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This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.