Character Evidence Made Simple

I field a lot of calls from prosecutors, defenders, and judges about evidence issues. Character evidence is one area that accounts for a lot of those calls. And no wonder. The rules are complicated and almost impossible to keep straight. The basic rule is that character evidence can’t be admitted to show propensity. Thus, evidence of the defendant’s reputation as a drug dealer is not admissible to show that the defendant is guilty of trafficking in drugs. See, e.g., State v. Yancey, 155 N.C. App. 609, 611 (2002) (the State’s evidence improperly characterized the defendant as a drug dealer). However, there are three important exceptions to the general rule: one deals with character of the defendant, a second with character of the victim, and a third with the character of witnesses. And that’s not all! If the character evidence falls within an exception and is admissible, special rules apply about the method of proof. Confused yet? The chart below will help you navigate the issues. For more detail, see my judges bench book chapter on point here; it’s 18 pages long and fleshes out each of these decision points in detail.

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