Saturday, February 28, 2009

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Specific Acts to Show Victim's Character

In Commonwealth v. Adjutant, 443 Mass. 649, 824 N.E.2d 1 (2004, opinion corrected 2005) the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the criminal defendant in a homicide case had the right to introduce specific acts of the victim on other occasions to show that the (alleged) victim was the aggressor in the incident that led to the victim's death.

This above statement of the Massachusetts court's holding is as dry as dust. The concrete facts of the case have more punch.

The defendant, a woman, was an employee of an "escort service." She went to the home of the "victim" to give him a "full body massage." Defendant killed the victim with a knife. She claimed she did so in self-defense after an argument erupted after the "victim" demanded that defendant have intercourse with him and, she claimed, she refused.

To show that the "victim" was the aggressor, defendant offered evidence showing the alleged victim's previous violent behavior and reputation for violence. Except for an incident involving victim's use of a crowbar in some other fracas, the trial court rejected these offers.

In a footnote the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recited:

In connection with Adjutant's sentencing, evidence of three violent acts committed by Whiting [the victim] while he was intoxicated and within three months of his death was presented to the court. In one of the instances, Whiting, while on cocaine, allegedly chased after his neighbor "like a raging bull" when confronted about vandalizing the common yard. In another, he allegedly threatened two neighbors with a butcher knife. And in the third, he allegedly threw boiling water on a friend with whom he was arguing.
Should such specific evidence about the alleged victim's behavior on other occasions be excluded (during the guilt phase of the trial) and should the defendant be limited to evidence about the victim's reputation for violence in order to save time and reduce the risk of "prejudice"? The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said "no."

Do you think the excluded evidence had probative value? Do you think it had a lot of probative value? Do you think it had more -- or much more -- probative value than did evidence about the reputation of the victim for violence? Do you think a jury should have heard such evidence of specific violent acts of the alleged victim -- acts such as threatening neighbors with a butcher knife or throwing boiling water on a "friend"? Do you think that if defendant's conviction had not been reversed, this story had the makings of a good (or bad) Hollywood movie?

What do you think now about the proposition, "Character has little probative value"? Would you now say, "Well, there is character and then there is character. Some character evidence seems to have a considerable amount of value"?

Knowing what you know about the "victim" Whiting in Adjutant, would you have allowed your teenage daughter or son to have a late-night dinner with Whiting if Whiting had survived his encounter with defendant Adjutant? (Do you think the last question is nothing more than provocative rhetoric. Or does my question make a serious point?)

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