By Dallas and Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
We all want to think that our good deeds and honest lifestyle for years or decades should count for something. Often I’m asked by people that have never been in trouble if the judge or jury will be able to know they’re good people.
There are ways and rules which permit you to interject good character to the judge or jury in trial. During plea negotiation, your lawyer can always try to persuade the prosecutor by pointing to a good record or a record of recovery.
Texas Rule of Evidence 404 controls character evidence for the accused in trial. An accused can put “character into question,” but there are some limitations. First is that all evidence must be relevant under TRE 401. “Relevant evidence” means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence. Evidence of volunteer work with the elderly, then, might not be relevant during the guilt/innocence phase at a DWI trial even though it is proof of good character.
Also evidence of character cannot generally be used at trial to prove conformity therewith (though rule 404b has specific exceptions). As an example, most judges probably won’t let you defend theft allegations by showing that you have a good credit score. Character is a legally tricky issue and because it’s really on a case-by-case and fact-by-fact problem, many judges will likely disagree as to what is or is not permissible. Appeals courts give trial courts a lot of discretion with these types of things.
Another issue with injecting character into the trial is that when a criminal defendant does this, it can “open the door” to the prosecution using character evidence of their own to try and dis-prove the accused’s assertion of good character. Obviously in cases where the accused has a past record or similar accusations from before — injecting character into evidence can backfire badly at the guilt/ innocence phase of the trial.
Character is always relevant at the punishment phase of the trial where an accused has been found guilty.
*Jeremy F. Rosenthal is an attorney licensed to practice in the state of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For legal advice about any specific matter you should consult an attorney directly.