Developments in Evidence of Other Crimes

If the defendant in a criminal trial has a record of other offenses or is suspected of a number of crimes although charged with only one, the admissibility of evidence of these other offenses can be crucial. Admissibility depends in part on the purpose for which the evidence is offered. For instance, the prosecution is severely limited in its use of evidence of character. Until the defendant submits evidence of his good character, the subject cannot be raised and even after character is put in issue particular acts are not allowed to show character. The defendant’s prior convictions may be used to impeach his testimony, just as similar evidence may be used to impeach any other witness. These uses of other offenses to establish character or to impeach testimony are outside the scope of this article, which is concerned with evidence used in the prosecution’s case in chief. The central problem concerning evidence of other offenses is that if the defendant’s other bad acts are proved, the jury might, wittingly or unwittingly, use bad character as an intermediate step in a series of deductions leading to the conclusion that the defendant should be convicted. The evidence is excluded, “not because it has no appreciable probative value, but because it has too much.” One purpose of this article is to examine the meaning of that statement, the nature and validity of the assumptions underlying it, and the utility of the rules of evidence built on it. A recent line of cases in Minnesota and a single case in Louisiana have established special procedures to be followed before and after evidence of other crimes is received. This article also examines these procedures and evaluates their effectiveness in coping with the problems presented by the admission of evidence of other offenses.