In criminal cases involving acts of violence, self-defense is often asserted as a defense. In support of that defense, the defendant will often try to show that the alleged victim was the aggressor. To do this, the defendant will attempt to show that the alleged victim was known for violence.
This evidence raises important evidentiary issues. The New Mexico Court of Appeals case of State v. Maples addressed the issue of when such evidence could be introduced at trial by the defendant.
The essential facts involve a deceased alleged victim who was on a very large dose of meth. The medical examiner later indicated that, at the time of the victim‘s death, the amount of methamphetamine in her system “was in the fatal range.”
The alleged victim at one point was found hovering over a sleeping female with knives. The defendant tried to restrain her. She fought fiercely and the defendant was forced to use duct tape on her arms and legs to restrain her. Even then, she continued to fight. Defendant continued to straddle her and physically restrain her which ultimately led to her death.
Before trial, the defendant submitted an amended witness list that included three police officers who could testify to the victim‘s “unusual strength” and her “seeming imperviousness to pain” which closely resembled the statements of the defendant.
The district court excluded the testimony as impermissible character evidence of a victim. The defendant was convicted and appealed to the New Mexico Court of Appeals.
Under Rule 11-404(A)(1), evidence of a person‘s character cannot be admitted to prove that the person acted in accordance with that trait on a particular occasion.
However, there are a couple of exceptions. First, a victim‘s prior violent conduct can be admissible to show the defendant‘s fear of the victim. However, the defendant must have known of the propensity for violence. In this case, there was no such prior knowledge. As such, the court excluded the evidence.
The court failed to recognize the second exception. There is a second exception where the evidence may be used to show that the alleged victim was the first aggressor.
The Court explained that there are three elements of a self-defense claim: 1) appearance of immediate danger of death or great bodily harm to the defendant, 2) the defendant was actually put in fear by that apparent danger of death or great bodily harm, and 3) a reasonable person in the same circumstances would have acted as the defendant did.
The Court explained that while all character evidence used to show conformity with character is propensity evidence, not all propensity evidence is character evidence. The Court stressed that the propensity evidence in this case was more particularized than broad character evidence (i.e. behavior while on meth versus general character toward violence).
This evidence could be used to show self-defense which would come into play in establishing self-defense. More specifically, the Court ruled that the evidence would have been offered for the jury to determine whether the defendant used reasonable force (or to prove the third prong of the self-defense claim), and therefore the evidence was admissible.
In sum, the Court found that the district court abused its discretion when it excluded the evidence as character evidence. The case was sent back to the district court for retrial upon the Court‘s finding that double jeopardy had not attached, which itself merits further discussion.