Prior Bad Acts Evidence in Criminal Cases
Prior bad acts evidence is exactly what it sounds like, i.e., that a person behaved in a bad way. Criminal court judges in PA typically don’t allow prior bad acts evidence of either the defendant or any witness in a criminal case. However, there are some, limited exceptions, which we discuss below.
The Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence act as the gatekeeper of all types of evidence, including prior bad acts evidence. In this legal article, we’re focusing on Rule 404 and how it applies in major criminal cases like murder or homicide. Scroll below for relevant portions of Rule 404.
Defense Admits Prior Bad Acts Evidence
In a criminal case, a defendant can offer evidence to show that he or she had a relevant character trait, or the defendant can offer evidence to show that the victim had a relevant character trait. The typical example involves a self-defense criminal case.
More: Another Win for Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer in a Homicide Case – Commonwealth v. Tariq Timmons (February 23, 2018) Firm partner David S. Nenner won a murder case where his client was accused of shooting the victim. Mr. Nenner also successfully represented a co-defendant.
For example, a Philadelphia resident is accused of murder. At a bar, the defendant encountered the victim who was drunk and violent. The victim broke a beer bottle and threatened to slash the defendant. The defendant reacted by pushing the victim who fell backwards, hit his head on concrete and died. Here, the defendant was clearly acting in self-defense. The victim was the first aggressor, and in order to prove that, the defendant is permitted to present evidence of the victim’s prior acts of aggression. Therefore, the defendant can present evidence that on prior occasions, the victim was violent and aggressive. This can be accomplished through evidence of prior convictions for assault or similar behavior and testimony of people who witnessed the victim’s violent behavior prior to the night of the incident.
Prosecution Admits Prior Bad Acts Evidence
In criminal cases, the prosecution is not allowed to argue that the defendant is a bad person and is therefore guilty of the crime. Pennsylvania law only allows the prosecution to present prior bad acts evidence of the defendant in two situations.
Evidence to Rebut a Defense
First, the prosecution is allowed to present prior bad acts evidence to rebut any prior bad acts evidence presented by the defendant. Using the same example above, the prosecution would be permitted to present evidence that the defendant had previously gotten into bar fights or had prior convictions for assault or similar conduct. Alternatively, the prosecution could admit evidence of the victim’s peacefulness.
Related: Attacking Eyewitness Credibility in Philadelphia Murder Trials (May 22, 2018) In a Philadelphia murder case, eyewitnesses are often critical parts of the prosecution’s case. Learn about trial tactics to attack the credibility of an eyewitness.
Evidence for a Special Purpose (Motive, Identity, Etc.)
Second, in criminal cases such as murder cases, the prosecution is allowed to present prior bad acts of the defendant if the evidence is used for a special purpose, such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.
For example, a Philadelphia resident is arrested and charged with murder in a botched robbery case, where the victim was shot and killed. An eyewitness says that the shooter was wearing a mask with specific red markings. The mask was found in the defendant’s car. The prosecution could try and admit evidence of other robberies in the area where the alleged robber was wearing the same mask. This evidence would be used to prove the identity of the shooter in the current case.
Given the risk this kind of evidence poses for the defense, there are two checks on the admission of this evidence. First, the prosecution is required to provide advance notice to the defense. Second, before allowing the evidence, the trial judge is required to weigh the proposed evidence against the unfair prejudice it causes to the defense.
For more info, visit the Philadelphia Murder Case Law Library.
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Firm founder David Nenner is a highly rated and experienced trial lawyer who handles major criminal cases across the Philadelphia region. Since 2015, he has been recognized as a “Top Rated Criminal Defense Attorney in Philadelphia, PA” by Super Lawyers magazine.
Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 404. Character Evidence; Crimes or Other Acts. (Current as of September 2018)
(a) Character Evidence.
(1) Prohibited Uses. Evidence of a person’s character or character trait is not admissible to prove that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character or trait.
(2) Exceptions for a Defendant or Victim in a Criminal Case. The following exceptions apply in a criminal case:
(A) a defendant may offer evidence of the defendant’s pertinent trait, and if the evidence is admitted, the prosecutor may offer evidence to rebut it;
(B) subject to limitations imposed by statute a defendant may offer evidence of an alleged victim’s pertinent trait, and if the evidence is admitted the prosecutor may:
(i) offer evidence to rebut it; and
(ii) offer evidence of the defendant’s same trait; and
(C) in a homicide case, the prosecutor may offer evidence of the alleged victim’s trait of peacefulness to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor.
[subsections (3) Exceptions for a Witness and (4) Exception in a Civil Action for Assault and Battery omitted]
(b) Crimes, Wrongs or Other Acts.
(1) Prohibited Uses. Evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character.
(2) Permitted Uses. This evidence may be admissible for another purpose, such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident. In a criminal case this evidence is admissible only if the probative value of the evidence outweighs its potential for unfair prejudice.
(3) Notice in a Criminal Case. In a criminal case the prosecutor must provide reasonable notice in advance of trial, or during trial if the court excuses pretrial notice on good cause shown, of the general nature of any such evidence the prosecutor intends to introduce at trial.