Can A Witness’ Credibility Be Attacked Using Past Bad Acts?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
State v. Adams, 51 S.W.3d 94 (Mo. Ct. App. 2001).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can a witness’ credibility be attacked using past bad acts?
This case dealt with the improper use of a witness’ past misdeeds. Id. at 101. The victim of the crime at issue testified against the Defendant in this case. Id. On cross-examination, the Defendant sought to use “specific acts of immorality” to attack the witness’ credibility. Id. However, the court determined that using past bad acts was an improper means of attacking the witness’ credibility. Id.
Defendant was charged with kidnapping and armed criminal action. Id. at 96. This case arose out of the abduction of a pregnant woman by Defendant. Id. at 97. Defendant and her associate were planning to take the newborn from the victim upon his or her birth. Id. However, the victim escaped from her make-shift prison cell and alerted a nearby dentist. Id. This lead to Defendant being found and arrested. Id. At trial, the victim testified on behalf of the State. Id. at 98. Defendant sought to introduce evidence that the victim had a history of substance abuse, had been involved in a stabbing, had been previously involved in a street gang, and had a history of armed actions herself. Id. The trial court refused to allow any of these pieces of evidence to be presented. Id. Defendant was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 20 years. Id.
The court noted that a witness’ credibility is always at issue. Id. at 100. This is because the jury is allowed to hear evidence that would suggests wherever a witness is apt to be honest or to lie. Id. However, there are limits to when such evidence may be introduced. Id. Particularly, if such evidence is more prejudicial than helpful to the jury, the evidence should not be presented. Id. To allow otherwise would invite the jury to become angry about something irrelevant to the matters at hand, and decide the case based on passion instead of facts. Id.
Having found that Missouri law settled and not allowing the credibility of a witness to be attacked by “showing a specific act of immorality or by showing that her general moral character is bad,” the court’s decision was easy. Id. at 101. The trial court properly kept such evidence from the jury and the Defendant’s conviction was affirmed. Id.
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