The Ultimate Guide to Mock Trial Character Evidence and Objections
Character evidence is an issue in almost every mock trial case I’ve worked on. Here’s a three-step analysis to help you understand mock trial character evidence and handle it with confidence.
Step One: Is There Evidence of a Someone’s Character?
You first need to figure out whether you even have character evidence to begin with!
Character evidence is evidence of a person’s character trait, such as a tendency toward violence, honesty/dishonesty, generosity, and selfishness.
Ask: What’s the character trait this evidence being offered to show? If you can’t name a character trait, the evidence is not character evidence.
Character evidence comes in three forms:
1. Evidence of Prior Act
This is evidence of an action taken by someone (typically, a witness) that shows they have a particular character trait. For example, a witness got into a fight the year before the crime now being prosecuted. Evidence of that prior fight might be offered as evidence of the person’s character or propensity for violence.
Prior Act vs. Habit Evidence
Habit evidence is not character evidence. A habit is something someone does as a matter of routine that doesn’t show their character.
For example, a storekeeper might say that every time someone pays with a $100 bill, they set that bill under the tray and they lock the cash register drawer. This habit says nothing about the storekeeper’s character, so it’s not character evidence.
As long as all other rules of evidence are followed, evidence of a person’s habit is admissible to show that they followed that habit on a given occasion.
2. Opinion Evidence
The second type of mock trial character evidence is opinion evidence, which is evidence of someone’s opinion about another person. For example, Ms. Wilson might be called as witness and testify: “I think Mr. Davis is a violent person.” That’s evidence of Ms. Wilson’s opinion of Mr. Davis.
3. Reputation Evidence
Reputation evidence is evidence of a person’s reputation for a particular character trait. For example, Ms. Wilson might testify, “Mr. Davis is known for being violent” or “Everyone knows Mr. Davis is a liar.”
Step Two: Is the evidence being offered to show that the person acted in accordance with that character trait?
The mock trial character evidence rule is: Character evidence cannot be used to show that a person acted in accordance with that character trait on a specific occasion.
Here’s an example to illustrate what this means.
The defendant is being prosecuted for an assault. The prosecution has evidence that the defendant was in a fight one year before the assault he is now being tried for. The prosecution can’t introduce evidence of the prior fight to show that the defendant committed the assault it’s now prosecuting.
That makes sense, because the prosecution needs to show beyond a reasonable double that the defendant committed the crime he’s being charged with. If we were allowed to convict people based on what they had previously done, our justice system would be entirely different!
Motive, Intent, Knowledge, Identity, Absence of Mistake
Evidence of a defendant’s prior act can be used for purposes other than to show that they acted in accordance with a particular character trait.
Evidence of a prior act might be offered to show the defendant’s motive or intent to commit the crime at issue, that the defendant had some relevant knowledge, or that it was the defendant (and not some other person) who committed the crime they are being prosecuted for.
Here’s an example. The defendant is being prosecuted for going five miles over the speed limit and running over the victim. The prosecution has evidence that six months earlier, the defendant drove five miles over the speed limit in a residential neighborhood and struck a parked car. The prosecution would argue that this evidence is not being used to show that the defendant committed the crime now at issue. Rather, it shows the defendant’s knowledge — that they knew that driving just five miles over the speed limit could result in harm.
Third Step: Is There an Applicable Exception?
There are 3 exceptions to the mock trial character evidence rule.
1. Evidence of Defendant’s Character
A defendant can show evidence of their character, such as their propensity for peacefulness, general kindness, etc. The defendant can only offer character evidence in the form of opinion evidence or reputation evidence. The defendant cannot offer evidence of a prior act that shows their good character.
Once the defense “opens the door” to evidence of his character, the prosecution can rebut with evidence that the defendant is not a good character.
2. Evidence of the Victim’s Character
The defense can offer evidence of the victim’s character to show that the victim acted in accordance with that character. For example, in an assault case, the defense might offer evidence that the victim has a propensity for violence and instigated a fight with the defendant, who was just trying to defend himself.
3. Evidence of Any Witness’s Character for Honesty or Dishonesty
The third exception is an exception that applies for any witness. A witness’s character for honesty or dishonesty is always at issue. Either the prosecution or defense can introduce evidence of an opposing witness’s dishonesty. The party calling that witness can then rebut with evidence of the witness’s honesty.
Summary of Three-Step Method for Mock Trial Character Evidence
The first step is finding out whether you actually have character evidence. Is it evidence (prior bad act, opinion, reputation) that shows some kind of character trait? No? Then you don’t have a character evidence issue at all.
Yes? Then ask: is the evidence being offered to show that the person acted in accordance with the character trait at issue? No? Then the evidence doesn’t violate the character evidence rule. Yes? Then consider whether there is an exception to the character evidence rule. Is it evidence of a defendant’s good character? Evidence of the victim’s character? Or evidence of any witness’s honesty or dishonesty? If one of these exceptions apply, the evidence is admissible.
When to Make the Objection
Knowing when to make a mock trial character evidence objection depends on Step One of the analysis. Is your opponent introducing e of someone’s prior action, evidence of someone’s opinion of someone else’s character, or evidence of someone’s reputation?
If so, your team should object to it as improper character evidence. I suggest objecting even before getting to Step Two of the analysis. This ensures that your opponent understands that character evidence isn’t simply evidence of prior action, opinion, or reputation, but it evidence offered to show that someone acted in accordance with that character trait.
Making the Objection
- Your Honor, the question calls for improper character evidence.
- Improper character evidence.
Arguing in Support of the Mock Trial Character Evidence Objection
Use the three-step method.
Your team tells the judge if the evidence is evidence of a prior action, opinion, or reputation. For example:
- This is improper evidence of a prior action taken by Mr. Davis.
- This is improper character evidence in the form of an opinion.
If your opponent argues that the evidence is not evidence of a prior action, but habit evidence, your team should then explain why it is not:
- Your Honor, this is evidence of Mr. Davis’s character, not evidence of habit. A habit is an action that is repeated regularly. The evidence offered by the prosecution — Mr. Davis’s single prior interaction with Ms. Wilson – was not repeated, so it is improper character evidence.
If your team is objecting to the evidence, they should identify a specific character trait and tell the judge that the evidence is being offered to show that the person acted in accordance with that trait. For example:
- This is evidence of a prior action taken by Mr. Davis, which is offered to show that he acted in accordance with a character trait for violence.
If your team made an objection, it should be ready to explain why the exceptions to the mock trial character evidence rule do not apply. For example:
- This evidence does not relate to [witness]’s honesty or dishonesty. Rather, it is evidence of [some other character trait].
- [Objection made by the defense:] The prosecution is offering evidence of the defendant’s character. The prosecution may not offer this evidence until the defense opens the door to evidence of the defendant’s character. The defense has not done so.
Opposing the Mock Trial Character Evidence Objection
If the evidence is not evidence of a prior action, opinion, or reputation, your team should tell the judge. For example:
- Your Honor, this is not evidence of a prior action that shows Mr. Davis’s character. It is evidence of his habit of taking a walk around the neighborhood every evening at approximately 6pm. A daily walk is not indicative of any particular character trait.
If possible, your team should show that the evidence is not being offered to show that the person acted in accordance with that character trait.
- This evidence is not being offered to show a propensity for violence; it’s being offered to show the defendant’s motive.
Argue that even if it is character evidence, an exception applies:
- Your Honor, this evidence is admissible because Ms. Wilson is expected to be called as a witness and this evidence relates to her honesty.
- Your Honor, an exception to the character evidence rule applies. This is evidence of the defendant’s character that is being offered by the defense.
I hope that you find this three-step breakdown of the character evidence rule helpful, both in understanding the character evidence rule and in handling objections. I’ve created an infographic for you to download or print, so that you can keep these steps at your fingertips: