Challenging the Prosecutor’s Evidence: Keeping Out “Prior Bad Acts”
If you have a criminal record, the prosecutor may try to introduce evidence of your “prior bad acts” in your criminal trial. This type of evidence is allowed (is “admissible”) only in limited circumstances, but do not expect the judge or the prosecutor to guard your rights in this regard. You need a savvy Boston criminal defense lawyer, who understands the rules of evidence, to prevent prior bad acts evidence from reaching the jury and unfairly influencing the outcome of your trial.
The Federal Rules of Evidence govern the types of evidence that are admissible at trial in federal court. The Massachusetts Guide to Evidence does the same for trials in Massachusetts state courts. Both the federal and the state rules limit the introduction of evidence of a defendant’s “prior bad acts.” Specifically, a prosecutor may not use this evidence as proof of the defendant’s bad character; or to show the defendant’s propensity for committing the same type of crime; or to prove the likelihood that the defendant committed the particular crime at issue in the trial. However, the law does allow a prosecutor to introduce evidence of prior bad acts for other purposes, including to establish motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge or identity. Thus, for example, if a defendant is on trial for bank robbery, the prosecutor may not tell the jury about the defendant’s prior bank robberies if the only reason for doing so is to cast the defendant as a “bank robber” or a “criminal character.” If, however, all of the bank robberies share the same distinctive modus operandi, then the jury may learn about the past robberies as a means of connecting the defendant to the current robbery.
A smart Boston criminal defense lawyer will file a motion (a formal, written request) with the court, challenging the admissibility of prior bad acts evidence on the ground that it is “more prejudicial than probative” or, in other words, “more harmful to the defendant than helpful to the jury” Your defense lawyer can argue persuasively that jurors often find it difficult to view evidence of prior bad acts without assuming that the defendant has a propensity to commit the same types of crimes again and again. Jurors may also see prior bad acts as a negative reflection of the defendant’s character or moral values. Either way, evidence of prior bad acts may interfere with the defendant’s right to a fair trial. If the prosecutor cannot prove that the value of this evidence to the jury in deciding the case is greater than the potential harm or unfairness to the defendant, then the court should not admit it.
Contact a Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer
If evidence of prior bad acts may be an issue in your trial, contact us. Let us review the facts of your case, analyze the relationship between your prior acts and the current charges you are facing, and take proactive steps to protect your right to a fair trial.
Kevin J. Mahoney is a Boston, MA criminal defense attorney.
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