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What is Character Evidence?

By Felicia Dye
Updated May 16, 2024
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Character is often used to refer to the qualities that define a person. Evidence is proof or testimony that is relevant to a case. Character evidence is a legal term used to describe proof and testimony given regarding a person’s qualities. This may include morality and honesty.

Court cases are often reliant on oral testimony. This means people provide the bulk of the information upon which verdicts are based. In many instances, people have no means to verify what they say. The only thing they may have to support their testimony is the oath they take. It is, therefore, important to ascertain whether or not they are worthy of belief.

Character evidence may be provided to credit or to discredit a person, depending on the circumstances. There are several instances in which a person may need to be credited. This is especially true when one party to a case has attempted to paint a negative image of the other party. This is common in divorce and custody battles.

One spouse will often accuse another of vile or deceitful acts. There may be no way of proving or disproving this other than to analyze the testimony of people who are familiar with the parties. If a husband, for example, accuses his wife of chronic infidelity, she may choose to defend herself by having people testify that she has always displayed very high moral standards.

In such a case, character evidence can be very important. Factors involving the outcome of the case could be deemed on which party is believed and to what extent. The factors can include who will bear fault, alimony awards, and custody rights.

A person may need to be discredited when he gives important testimony that the opposing party does not think should be believed. If a witness is called to defend someone accused of fraud, it is relevant to make the judge and jury aware if the witness has been convicted of fraud. This will show that his testimony may not be completely trustworthy, although it does not necessarily mean he is lying or that the accused is guilty.

Character evidence is not permitted to smear people in courtrooms. It is only permitted when it has direct bearing on the case. If, for example, a person is on trial for robbery, it is permissible to testify to his character by pointing out that he is a pastor. It is not, however, generally permissible, to enter evidence of infidelity into such a case.

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Discussion Comments

By David09 — On Mar 09, 2012

@hamje32 - The problem with character evidence in my opinion is that wealthier defendants can afford influential members of the community as their character witnesses.

These character witnesses may hold greater sway over a juror than a poorer, unknown character witness. People are moved by appearances after all.

Imagine that you’re a Hollywood superstar accused of a crime and you call as your character witnesses other well known Hollywood stars. The average juror might take their word as gospel and really give their testimony more credence than it deserves. It’s unfortunate but I think that in many cases the term “courtroom drama” is more appropriate than you realize.

By hamje32 — On Mar 09, 2012

@Charred - Well, you’re innocent until proven guilty, regardless of whether people think you’re nice or not. Testimony evidence is important as part of the overall defense but it can never prove guilt or innocence on its own in my opinion.

At least I would never give it that much credence. I served as a juror on a murder trial, and the defendant was a known member of a gang who had been accused of killing someone. This was a gang member; not a lot of people came to his defense to state what a fine, upstanding member of the community that he was.

Yet, we never convicted, because the prosecution didn’t do a good job of persuading us of the defendant's guilt beyond reasonable doubt. So character evidence – or the lack thereof – is not the most important ingredient in my opinion.

By Charred — On Mar 08, 2012

Character evidence is certainly important but it’s not foolproof. How many times have you seen examples of people who were convicted of – and found guilty of – a terrible crime, when these same people were thought to be people of sterling character in the community?

You hear others say, “He always seemed to be a nice person,” or “He was quiet but never made any trouble for anyone.” The next thing you know, the quiet, nice person commits a heinous crime.

So in cases like that character evidence doesn’t amount to much in my opinion. Direct examination reveals that the defendant may in fact have been capable of committing a crime, based on evidence.

In the end the only thing that matters is the proof, which establishes “beyond reasonable” doubt that someone committed a crime.

By discographer — On Mar 08, 2012

@fify-- That's right, character evidence cannot be used circumstantially.

A good example would be a case of theft or embezzlement. You can have coworkers and acquaintances testify as to how trustworthy the defendant is in this case. Character evidence is allowed here because if this person is generally not know to be trustworthy, it's more likely for him or her to commit a crime like embezzlement. This can be used as evidence.

In the same case however, you cannot have people testify about how violent the defendant is because that is not directly related to the case. Being violent or not violent doesn't say much about the crime this person has been claimed to commit. So this is circumstantial evidence and cannot be used.

You can also check out the Federal Rules of Evidence for more details on what counts as character evidence and in which cases it may be used.

By fify — On Mar 07, 2012

This is interesting. So essentially, character evidence is the reputation of the defendant- how he or she is known by those who know him or her.

Can character evidence be used in cases as circumstantial evidence? I'm not exactly sure what is considered to be circumstantial evidence and what is not. But I think that circumstantial evidence is evidence that doesn't directly relate to the case. If that's true, then it would be like smearing someone in court and the article clearly mentioned that this is not allowed.

Can someone give me an example of the kind of trial that character evidence would be allowed? I'm trying to understand the difference between a case where character evidence applies to the case directly and one where it doesn't apply.

By burcidi — On Mar 07, 2012

Character evidence is important, but it's only as reliable as the people who testify.

My parents had a divorce case many years ago. My dad was trying to divorce my mom on the basis that my mom wasn't taking care of the home. My dad claimed in court that she didn't cook, clean or do anything to maintain the home because my mom was refusing to divorce.

The judge asked my parents' mutual friends to testify. Unfortunately they took my dad's side and testified in his favor even though what they said wasn't true.

It's kind of funny because, the point of trial evidence on character is to see who is really telling the truth. But if those who testify also lie, it can be really hard to figure out who's really at fault.

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