Character Evidence: Inadmissible in the Courtroom of life
Character evidence is important, because the character of a person is crucial. People care about the Character of a person because the character of a person will dictate what actions he would likely take or not take, and ultimately whether or not he should be trusted. So the question then becomes “how is a person’s character determined”? Often times the character of a person is determined through subliminal and/or overt words of praise or disparagement, which will help to create a person’s character in our minds.
However, the person’s character may be called into question to further some 3rd party’s agenda and thus may be tainted by bias, or it may be called into question based upon the actions that a person takes as a function of their job.
As legal professionals our character may be called into question because of the clients we take or the tactics we use in defending these clients. A prosecutor who has a high conviction rate for a minority group may be viewed as a racist, for having such a high conviction rate against a minority group, when in reality his conviction rate may be a function of his job as an ADA and may reflectthe policy of the DA or simply it may only be a result of the demographic makeup of the Jurisdiction’s populace. This type of character assessment is not only unjust but also dangerous, possibly leading to distrust in the government, and ill perception of public officials, because of a perceived bias.
We as legal scholars know the power that character evidence wields and thus have implemented various evidentiary rules pertaining to character evidence, in a hope to prevent the injection ofundue influence into judicial proceedings and thereby limiting its power to only exceptional circumstances . Our hope in doing so, is to ensure the equity of justice while also keeping the power of character evidence. But what about when the day ends and we leave the court room (or classroom) and enter the real world? How often do we allow one-sided skewed and unbalanced information to mold our perception of a person’s character? It is my position that as people, weshould be mindful to realize that although not in a legal arena and thus not subject to the rules of evidence, character “evidence” in the court of public opinion, wields significant perception molding power and should be objectively scrutinized to the same degree as we scrutinize Britney Spears’ latest shenanigans
Often evidence that leads to an assessment of a person’s character is shrouded in subtle persuasive language. Therefore, the language may appear objectively based upon unbiased observations, when in reality it is subjectively rooted in the a biased assessment made by a person or person(s) having an adverse interest to the party, or situation, in question. For Example: When a person having a public status commits some ill-advised action and subsequently characterized as a “good guy who made an unfortunate mistake” , this seemingly innate statement at first glance appears objective, however, if it is analyzed thoroughly its true nature is flushed out. Characterizing the person as a “good guy” is a character assessment, it goes to a person’s value set and ultimately creates a character profile for that person.
We see this sort of subjectivity often when scrutinizing public figures. Characterizing the person’s actions as “an unfortunate mistake” reinforces that character profile. This type of characterization will often imbed itself subliminally in a person’s subconscious, and will create a bias, albeit positive which will inevitably lead some, who are less trained in analysis , to the conclusion that the person is a “good guy” whether or not that be true or not. This sort of character fluffing appears innocuous until the character creation becomes negative, and its true dangers become clear. If a person is characterized as a “bad guy who is at it again” the dangerousness of such assessments becomes evident. “Bad Guy” is obviously a character assessment , a negative one and “at it again” serves to reinforce this negative assessment. Inevitably a person who is less apt at analysis will belief that the person is a bad guy and will be less sympathetic to that person, with little regard toobjective standards. To be sure, this is an overly simplified example of a complex issue however, these subtle distortions are immensely effective in imbedding a sense of a person’s character into unsuspecting persons.
As legal professionals we should be wary of any character assessment about an individual based solely upon an action, or even worse, a perceived action of that individual.
To alleviate the risk of subtle distortion of a person’s character there should be a vetting of all information obtained regarding that person. This vetting of character evidence should be done not only in the court room but also in our daily lives. Vetting of information that we receive as we watch television, talk to our friends as we navigate our way through law school and the legal professionshould be our goal. As legal professionals we owe a duty of professional responsibility in our daily lives to refrain from biased based character assessments, based upon overt and subliminal characterizations, made by persons who often have vested interests in promoting or demoting a person’s character.
This level of suspicion calls for an in-depth analysis. That analysis includes, but is not limited to, 1) an in-depth investigation into any adverse/aligned interests the person giving the information may have, 2) past actions of the giver of information and those of the person whose character has been offered , 3) the persons beliefs and background 4) and any conflicting reports regarding the action(s) in question. To the average person this may seem an extensive list, however, we are, or will soon be, legal professionals. As such, we are trained to analyze and also to be excessively critical (if not obsessively) objective. As such our professional responsibility demands an in depthobjective analysis of something as crucial as the character of a person. This mode of character vetting should be standard operating procedure when a person’s character has been offered, even when it is offered outside the courtroom.