By David Rangaviz
State v. Vuley, 2013 VT 9
“The man who wins the lottery once is envied; the one who wins it twice is investigated.”
In criminal trials, the presentation of evidence to the jury is governed by certain rules. These evidentiary rules often keep highly relevant information away from the jury, typically because the evidence is either somehow unreliable, unfair to the defendant, or confusing to the jury.
One such rule bars what is referred to either as propensity or character evidence. Under this rule, the prosecution cannot admit evidence of a defendant’s other bad acts—as in, not the act the defendant is on trial for allegedly committing—to show that he has a certain character trait or propensity (for committing crime). The theory behind the rule is that the prosecution should have to show that the defendant committed this crime, not have the bar effectively lowered by the admission of evidence of the defendant’s prior bad acts. Also, these prior bad acts might poison the jury against the defendant, and send the trial down any number of rabbit holes if the defendant disputes that he committed each individual prior act (turning each trial into an endless criminal version of This Is Your Life).