Anyone who has found themselves in the middle of a criminal proceeding understands the toll it can take on your life. Your life goes from calm to whirlwind in a blink of an eye, leaving you in a state of confusion. This is understandable as the majority of us don’t walk around having fine-tuned our understanding of the criminal justice system. Yet, having a basic understanding of the criminal justice system could go a long way in helping you be prepared if you are in a criminal situation and your defense attorney is defending your case. In this blog, we look at three key rules of evidence that all criminal defendants should understand to be informed of testimony and stay informed and help understand the courtroom process.
Relevancy. The first rule of evidence to know is relevancy. Relevancy is a threshold that all evidence must meet before it can be offered and admitted at trial. The relevancy threshold is not a hard barrier to overcome. Evidence is relevant if: (1) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and (2) the fact is of consequence in determining the action.1 Ultimately, the relevancy question is fact-specific, and there is no blanket rule on what is and is not relevant. For example, a witness’s prior drug use is probably irrelevant in a murder prosecution case. Remember to ask yourself why a certain piece of evidence is being offered. If it’s because it helps prove something in the case, it is probably relevant. If it is offered to solely paint the other party in a bad light, it is probably not relevant.
Character Evidence. This rule causes a lot of confusion for criminal defendants, and in some instances, seems very unfair. The general rule is that evidence of a person’s character or character trait is not admissible to prove that on a particular occasion the person acted (at the time of this particular criminal act and charge being tried) in accordance with the character or trait.2 The rule also generally prohibits evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act to prove a person's character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character. For example, say that a child accuses an individual of sexual misconduct. At trial, the defendant could not try to use evidence that the child has lied in the past, and as such, must be lying now. There are, of course, exceptions to the general rule. However, what is important to remember is that generally speaking, character evidence is inadmissible at trial.
Hearsay. This is one rule of evidence we have all heard, but one that still causes a lot of confusion, even for attorneys. Hearsay, by definition, is a statement that (1) is not being made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing; and (2) is offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted.3 The first part of this rule, in plain terms, means that any out of court statement made by any person other than the person testifying is hearsay. For example, say Sally is on the stand, if Sally testified that “the store clerk told her “X” killed the victim” and the store clerk is not testifying, that is hearsay. The point of hearsay is to keep out the “he said, she said” sort of evidence. The second part of this rule is important and often overlooked, again, even by attorneys. Out of court statements are not hearsay unless they are being offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. This is an important distinction. Take our example of Sally’s testimony above. Suppose Sally instead testified that “the store clerk told me it would be a warm day, and that’s when I saw “X” kill the victim.” This would not be hearsay because, while it is an out of court statement, the fact that the store clerk said it would be sunny is not being offered to prove “X” killed the victim. Hearsay is tricky and it comes up a lot in divorce proceedings as well as criminal matters, as these are the majority of cases courts hear. Be aware of the complexities of the hearsay rule and don’t be afraid to ask your attorney questions.
The takeaway from this blog is that it is important to have, at minimum, a grasp of the complexities of the rules of evidence to help your attorney help you and, if you testify, have a basic understanding of troubling evidentiary rules. Furthermore, it shows the importance of retaining a competent and diligent attorney. We hope this blog provides some insight into some of the more important rules of evidence. This blog post is written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle criminal matters of all types throughout Indiana. This blog is written for general educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.