Courts often struggle in cases involving domestic violence with whether evidence of similar past conduct should be admitted. The Legislature in recent years has considered changes in the law to allow in such evidence. What happens when a criminal defendant puts his own character on trial was explored in a recent opinion from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals called Harold Eugene Williams v. State.
The opinion indicates that Williams and his girlfriend of more than three years got in an argument one morning after she had spent the night at his house, when he allegedly learned of text messages on her phone from another man. The victim claimed he became irate and yelled at her, struck and kicked her, and held a gun to her head while he threw her out of his house. She called 911 and he was charged with assault and other crimes.
At trial Williams admitted to kicking the victim out, but denied assaulting her or that he owned a gun. His attorney called as a character witness a witness who had known the defendant for 10 years, was his best friend and claimed he had a reputation as a peaceful person. The prosecution over objection was allowed to ask the witness if she knew the defendant had been convicted of battery in 1990, which she denied but also said that did not change her opinion of him. Two more character witnesses were called and asked the same questions about his battery conviction. The jury convicted Williams of second degree assault.
The appellate Court upheld the defendant’s conviction. It noted that a criminal defendant had the right to introduce character evidence, but having claimed he had a reputation for peacefulness opened the door to introduction of evidence in the trial judge’s discretion that could include even very old convictions. Quoting a 1948 Supreme Court case, “While the law gives the option to show as a fact that his reputation reflects a life and habit incompatible with commission of the offense charged, it subjects his proof to tests of credibility designed to prevent him from profiting by a mere parade of partisans.”
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.