We’ve all heard it before when somebody wants to be a character witness. They really don’t know what a character witness is. In a court of law, character is a broad statement referencing a person’s predisposition to be amongst other things, truthful, honest, chaste or loyal. The general rule is that character evidence is not admissible, and there are good reasons for that general rule. There are exceptions to that rule too.
A defendant is permitted to raise evidence as to his or her own specific character traits, so long as they’re within the scope of the crime they are charged with. For example, a defendant charged with theft might raise his reputation for honesty. The person charged with theft can’t raise their reputation for chastity. Even if a defendant has a reputation for dishonesty, the prosecution can’t use character evidence of dishonesty to try to convict him. There’s too much risk that a jury might convict the defendant on his bad character and reputation rather than the facts of the case.
Once the defendant raises the issue of reputation, the prosecution is allowed to try to rebut that evidence, either through cross examination or through their own witnesses. Neither side is permitted to raise specific acts to prove or disprove one’s character.
Both parties are allowed to raise the issue of a reputation for veracity or accuracy of the testimony of any witness in a case. This rule goes to the heart of impeaching a witness. It’s particularly applicable when a defendant waives their right against self-incrimination and testifies in their own defense.
When certain conditions have been met, veracity can be attacked with prior convictions for felonies or crimes involving dishonesty or deceit. A jury can’t simply be shown that the witness has a prior felony conviction. The name or title of the crime must be made known to the jury. This operates to prevent speculation and conjecture that could be highly prejudicial to the defendant. When courts permit character evidence, they must assure that it’s properly raised while also providing an opportunity to rebut it, all within the context of the crime charged. A person cannot be convicted on alleged character or reputation alone.