The U.S. justice system is broken down into different parts, the part that handles civil lawsuits and the part that handles criminal cases. In addition, there is a family/estate part that handles divorce, custody and/or estate matters.
In order to proceed with a case in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, whether it’s a civil lawsuit, a criminal case or a family law matter, any witness who testifies can have their credibility attacked. This may be done with character evidence.
What is Character Evidence?
Under Pennsylvania and New Jersey Rules of Evidence, which are modeled after federal rules, character evidence is any evidence which shows that a person acted in conformity with a certain character. Character evidence may take the form of reputation, opinion, or evidence that the individual was previously convicted of a crime.
In general, character evidence is not allowed in any case. For instance, in a criminal drug dealing case, evidence that the defendant is a “bad” person would not be allowed to prove guilt. The reasoning behind this rule is that cases should not be decided on whether a person was previously bad/good/etc. Rather, cases should be decided based on evidence of the acts alleged.
Truthfulness or Believability (AKA: Credibility)
There are, however, several exceptions. One exception allows evidence to show whether a witness is credible or can be believed. In other words, is the witness telling the truth?
When a witness testifies in any case, the opposing side may call into question the credibility of the witness. This is called impeachment, and it can be done with either reputation evidence or evidence that the witness was previously convicted of a crime involving dishonesty (i.e., fraud, theft by deception, perjury, etc.) within the last 10 years.
Reputation evidence is hardly used these days. Gone are the days when a witness would even have a reputation in their community for being honest or dishonest. Most people don’t live in tiny communities anymore, where everyone knows everyone else.
Instead, credibility of a witness is usually attacked by evidence that the individual was previously convicted of a crime of dishonesty. Although, there are some limits to this rule. In PA and NJ, there is a 10 year limit. The conviction must have occurred within the previous 10 years. Otherwise, the judge must decide whether to allow the evidence, and most judges won’t, absent compelling circumstances.
So, in a sex abuse lawsuit in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, any witness who testifies may have their credibility attacked. This is true of the parties themselves, i.e., the plaintiff-victim or defendant-perpetrator, as well as any supporting witness, such as an eyewitness. If the witness was previously convicted of check fraud (within the past 10 years), the opposing side has a right to cross examine the witness about the conviction.
It is important to note that oftentimes, victims of sexual assault, especially child molestation, turn to drugs, alcohol and crime. It’s not uncommon for the victim in a civil sex abuse lawsuit to have a conviction for theft, fraud, etc. An abused victim with a prior conviction won’t necessarily lose their case. Juries are often very understanding about an abused victim whose past involves criminal conduct. Jurors often trust their gut when it comes to truthfulness and whether to believe a witness.
In sex assault or abuse cases, corroborating evidence absolutely helps to rehabilitate or strengthen a case. For example, the victim in a priest sex abuse case has a prior conviction for fraud, which comes out at trial. However, there is solid evidence corroborating the victim’s story, such as an eyewitness, journal entries made at or near the time of the abuse, etc. Therefore, even with the prior conviction, the corroborating evidence would help the victim’s case, showing that their testimony was truthful and accurate.
In addition to evidence of reputation or conviction of a crime, the credibility of a witness may also be attacked by showing that the witness made prior, contradictory statements, so long as they were made under oath. For instance, a school is sued for allowing a teacher to sexually abuse a student. A witness for the school testifies at his deposition that he saw the teacher with the victim on two occasions off school property. At trial, the same witness changes his story and says that he never saw the victim and teacher together off school property. Because the prior statement was made under oath, the witness can be cross examined about having made that prior statement, seeing the teacher and victim together on two occasions off school property.
Character evidence issues in a sex assault or abuse case often arise and will vary with each case. In some cases, character evidence will not be an issue at all. In others, character evidence will become the ultimate issue that decides the case. Get more info about victims’ lawsuits for sex abuse or assault.
Sex Abuse Lawyer for Victims, Brian Kent
Mr. Kent is a former sex crimes unit prosecutor who now helps victims obtain justice in the civil courts. Please call Mr. Kent for a free case review. 800.220.7600
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