Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ye Shall Judge Their Deeds, Not Their Souls -- Justice Cardozo

After students carefully study the American character evidence rule -- a/k/a the propensity rule -- a/k/a the prohibition against "circumstantial" use of character -- they are impressed, and appropriately so -- by the rule's porousness. They are so impressed that some of them incline toward the view -- and understandably so -- that in a garden variety case of robbery or murder, another robbery or murder (respectively) committed by accused at some other time is admissible, without further ado, during the prosecution's case in chief to show the accused's intent for the crime for which he or she is on trial. The logic of the character evidence rule does in fact push toward that conclusion. (The reasoning so pushing involves the acknowledged right of the prosecution to negative a claim of accident or mistake by accused and the fact that intent is an an essential element of crimes such as robbery and murder.) However, if prosecutors were allowed -- without more -- to introduce other murders in a murder case, other robberies... etc., a large hole would be carved out of the heart of the character evidence rule. (Abolishing the character evidence rule might or might not be a good thing. But American law professes to have a character evidence rule.) If you (along with others) find it hard to understand the character evidence rule -- and there is good reason why you should have this difficulty -- you might find it useful to begin by bringing to mind the basic sentiment underlying the character evidence rule, a sentiment that Justice Cardozo (then chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals) eloquently stated 78 years ago in People v. Zackowitz, 254 N.Y. 192 (1930):
At the trial the vital question was the defendant's state of mind at the moment of the homicide. Did he shoot with a deliberate and premeditated design to kill? Was he so inflamed by drink or by anger or by both combined that, though he knew the nature of his act, he was the prey to sudden impulse, the fury of the fleeting moment? .... If he went forth from his apartment with a preconceived design to kill, how is it that he failed to shoot at once? How reconcile such a design with the drawing of the pistol later in the heat and rage of an affray? These and like questions the jurors were to ask themselves and answer before measuring the defendant's guilt. Answers consistent with guilt in its highest grade can reasonably be made. Even so, the line between impulse and deliberation is too narrow and elusive to make the answers wholly clear. The sphygmograph records with graphic certainty the fluctuations of the pulse. There is no instrument yet invented that records with equal certainty the fluctuations of the mind. At least, if such an instrument exists, it was not working at midnight in the Brooklyn street when Coppola and the defendant came together in a chance affray. With only the rough and ready tests supplied by their experience of life, the jurors were to look into the workings of another's mind, and discover its capacities and disabilities, its urges and inhibitions, in moments of intense excitement. Delicate enough and subtle is the inquiry, even in the most favorable conditions, with every warping influence excluded. There must be no blurring of the issues by evidence illegally admitted and carrying with it in its admission an appeal to prejudice and passion.

Evidence charged with that appeal was, we think, admitted here. Not only was it admitted, and this under objection and exception, but the changes were rung upon it by prosecutor and judge. Almost at the opening of the trial the People began the endeavor to load the defendant down with the burden of an evil character. He was to be put before the jury as a man of murderous disposition. To that end they were allowed to prove that at the time of the encounter and at that of his arrest he had in his apartment, kept there in a radio box, three pistols and a tear-gas gun. There was no claim that he had brought these weapons out at the time of the affray, no claim that with any of them he had discharged the fatal shot. He could not have done so, for they were all of different calibre. The end to be served by laying the weapons before the jury was something very different. The end was to bring persuasion that here was a man of vicious and dangerous propensities, who because of those propensities was more likely to kill with deliberate and premeditated design than a man of irreproachable life and amiable manners. Indeed, this is the very ground on which the introduction of the evidence is now explained and defended. The District Attorney tells us in his brief that the possession of the weapons characterized the defendant as "a desperate type of criminal," a "person criminally inclined." The dissenting opinion, if it puts the argument less bluntly, leaves the substance of the thought unchanged. "Defendant was presented to the jury as a man having dangerous weapons in his possession, making a selection therefrom and going forth to put into execution his threats to kill." The weapons were not brought by the defendant to the scene of the encounter. They were left in his apartment where they were incapable of harm. In such circumstances, ownership of the weapons, if it has any relevance at all, has relevance only as indicating a general disposition to make use of them thereafter, and a general disposition to make use of them thereafter is without relevance except as indicating a "desperate type of criminal," a criminal affected with a murderous propensity.

We are asked to extenuate the error by calling it an incident: what was proved may have an air of innocence if it is styled the history of the crime. The virus of the ruling is not so easily extracted. Here was no passing reference to something casually brought out in the narrative of the killing, as if an admission had been proved against the defendant that he had picked one weapon out of several. Here in the forefront of the trial, immediately following the statement of the medical examiner, testimony was admitted that weapons, not the instruments of the killing, had been discovered by the police in the apartment of the killer; and the weapons with great display were laid before the jury, marked as exhibits, and thereafter made the subject of animated argument. Room for doubt there is none that in the thought of the jury, as in that of the District Attorney, the tendency of the whole performance was to characterize the defendant as a man murderously inclined. The purpose was not disguised. From the opening to the verdict, it was flaunted and avowed.

If a murderous propensity may be proved against a defendant as one of the tokens of his guilt, a rule of criminal evidence, long believed to be of fundamental importance for the protection of the innocent, must be first declared away. Fundamental hitherto has been the rule that character is never an issue in a criminal prosecution unless the defendant chooses to make it one (Wigmore, Evidence, vol. 1, §§ 55, 192). In a very real sense a defendant starts his life afresh when he stands before a jury, a prisoner at the bar. There has been a homicide in a public place. The killer admits the killing, but urges self-defense and sudden impulse. Inflexibly the law has set its face against the endeavor to fasten guilt upon him by proof of character or experience predisposing to an act of crime (Wigmore, Evidence, vol. 1, §§ 57, 192; People v. Molineux, 168 N. Y. 264). The endeavor has been often made, but always it has failed. At times, when the issue has been self-defense, testimony has been admitted as to the murderous propensity of the deceased, the victim of the homicide (People v. Druse, 103 N. Y. 655; People v. Rodawald, 177 N. Y. 408; Wigmore, Evidence, vol. 1, §§ 63, 246), but never of such a propensity on the part of the killer. The principle back of the exclusion is one, not of logic, but of policy (Wigmore, vol. 1, §§ 57, 194; People v. Richardson, 222 N. Y. 103, 109, 110). There may be cogency in the argument that a quarrelsome defendant is more likely to start a quarrel than one of milder type, a man of dangerous mode of life more likely than a shy recluse. The law is not blind to this, but equally it is not blind to the peril to the innocent if character is accepted as probative of crime. "The natural and inevitable tendency of the tribunal — whether judge or jury — is to give excessive weight to the vicious record of crime thus exhibited, and either to allow it to bear too strongly on the present charge, or to take the proof of it as justifying a condemnation irrespective of guilt of the present charge" (Wigmore, Evidence, vol. 1, § 194, and cases cited).

The workmanlike and non-poetic dissenting opinion, written by Judge Pound, presents the problem of the character rule's porousness practically at the birth of the modern character evidence rule -- and is also perhaps a harbinger of the future of the rule:
The People may not prove against a defendant crimes not alleged in the indictment committed on other occasions than the crime charged as aiding the proofs that he is guilty of the crime charged unless such proof tends to establish (1) motive; (2) intent; (3) absence of mistake or accident; (4) a common scheme or plan embracing the commission of two or more crimes so related to each other that proof of the one tends to establish the other; (5) the identity of the person charged with the commission of the crime on trial. These exceptions are stated generally and not with categorical precision and may not be all-inclusive. (People v. Molineux, 168 N. Y. 264; People v. Pettanza, 207 N. Y. 560; People v. Moran, 246 N. Y. 100, 106.) None of them apply here nor were the weapons offered under an exception to the general rule. They were offered as a part of the transaction itself. The accused was tried only for the crime charged. The real question is whether the matter relied on has such a connection with the crime charged as to be admissible on any ground. If so, the fact that it constitutes another distinct crime does not render it inadmissible. (Commonwealth v. Snell, 189 Mass. 12, 21.) The rule laid down in the Molineux case has never been applied to prevent the People from proving all the elements of the offense charged, although separate crimes are included in such proof. Thus in this case no question is made as to the separate crime of illegal possession of the weapon with which the killing was done. It was "a part of the history of the case" having a distinct relation to and bearing upon the facts connected with the killing. (People v. Governale, 193 N. Y. 581; People v. Rogers, 192 N. Y. 331; People v. Hill, 198 N. Y. 64; People v. Rodawald, 177 N. Y. 408.)

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