Can a “colorful” past damage a claim of self defense?

I came across a recent Indiana Court of Appeals case that does a good job of explaining what kinds of prior bad acts can be brought up in court to impugn someone’s claims of self defense. Anyone who has led a pure-as-snow life needn’t worry about such issues, I suppose, but if you’ve lived a more, well, colorful past, it might be useful to know whether a jury is likely to hear about that past if you ever find yourself arguing self defense in front of them.

The case at hand is Perry v. State, 956 N.E.2d 41 (IN Ct. App. 2011). (If you’d like to see the full text of the case, I’ll provide a link at the bottom of this post.)

Perry, the Defendant, was accused (among other charges) of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, the Victim. At trial he was found guilty of the assault charge in particular, despite having argued that his use of force against the Victim was justified as self defense. He appealed his conviction on numerous grounds, among which was that the trial court had made a reversible error when it admitted evidence of a number of prior arrests of him for various domestic disturbances.

It was in exploring this argument that the appellate court set out the guidelines for what kinds of prior acts evidence could be admitted, and under what circumstances, in case involving self defense.

Normally, evidence of a Defendant’s past acts cannot be admitted into evidence for the purposes of arguing the Defendant’s propensity for committing the crime for which he is being charged. In other words, the fact that the Defendant did bad thing “X” in the past is not allowed to be considered as a factor in deciding whether he did bad thing “Y” with which he is now charged. The courts do not want to have the jury convict a defendant on charge “Y” simply because they feel he’s a “bad character” based on the prior crime “X”.

There are a few well-accepted exceptions to this general rule, however, where evidence of prior bad acts can be introduced for reasons other than demonstrating “bad character”. For example, acts of prior misconduct may be admissible to prove motive or intent or some other material facts at issue in a case.

For our purposes, however, the most relevant exception is where the defendant is claiming self defense. Once the defendant injects self defense into the court, the prosecution is now free to use evidence of prior misconduct to prove that Defendant was the first aggressor–and if they are successful in this effort they effectively strip the defendant of self defense entirely. (Indiana law provides that “a person is not justified in using force if . . . the person . . . is the initial aggressor.” See IC 35-41-3-2(g)(3).

But does that exception, once self defense is claimed, apply to any and all past acts of misconduct, or only to certain categories of them? Is a mere rumor of a prior bad act enough to get it into evidence, or must there be a criminal conviction of the bad act, or something in between?

Court’s Analysis
The appellate court decided to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, to make clear what types of prior acts would be admissible, and what types would not. Specifically, they decided that “before a defendant’s alleged prior misconduct evidence can be admitted . . . there must be sufficient proof from which a jury could find that the defendant committed the prior acts in question.”

Of course, that simply begs the question–what is a “sufficient proof”? In its wisdom, the court decided that the proof had to be something more than simply an arrest or the bringing of charges. In its view, a mere arrest or charge is not “sufficient proof” that the alleged act even actually occurred, and so it’s not enough to get the prior act admitted into evidence even in a case involving self defense.

Having said that something more than arrest or charging is required, however, the court also made clear that “something more” doesn’t mean “a lot more”–just about anything more will do. (Say, for an example, an affidavit of a witness to the offense charged, perhaps?) Also, the fact that charges remain adjudicated or even resulted in a dismissal doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be brought into evidence. Indeed, even where the defendant was outright acquitted of the alleged crime, it may still be allowed into evidence as a prior bad act.

But if all the prosecution has is an arrest or a charge, that’s not going to cut it in terms of getting a prior bad act introduced into evidence to show that a defendant claiming self defense was, in fact, the aggressor.

In this particular case, the appellate court decided that the trial court’s admission into evidence of the defendant’s prior bad acts was sufficiently unjust that they reversed his conviction, and remanded the case for retrial consistent with the new rule it had set down. And if you read the case, you’ll see that they made this decision despite the fact that this particular defendant was very much not a nice guy.

IMPORTANT: This blog post does NOT constitute legal advice, nor does it purport to accurately communicate the laws or court decisions of the jurisdiction of the actual case discussed. This blog post is intended solely for ILLUSTRATIVE PURPOSES, and to provide a forum for the discussion and debate of important issues relevant to the law of self defense. If you are in immediate need of legal counsel, retain a competent attorney in your jurisdiction.

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