Four people were shot in an exchange of gunfire between three Chicago police officers and an alleged gang member with a long history of drug-related arrests.
29-year-old Lamar Harris was under investigation for “possible narcotics activity” when he apparently ran from police in the Holman Square area of the West Side of Chicago. Officers pursued on foot and soon cornered Mr. Harris in an unlit apartment complex courtyard. The shooting began as officers converged on the suspect. Three officers were wounded: one in the foot, one in the back, and one absorbed bullets on his bulletproof vest; Mr. Harris was fatally wounded.
Prior to this incident, Mr. Harris had been arrested over 40 times for various offenses, including drug dealing and aggravated assault on a peace officer.
Criminal History and Criminal Prosecutions
We routinely make judgements based on prior acts. For example, employers nearly always assume that applicants who have been garbage collectors before can do that type of work again, even if there are facts that indicate otherwise, such as a recent physical wound. Jurors are people too, and so if they learn that a defendant has a criminal past, they nearly always assume that the defendant committed the charged offense as well, notwithstanding any facts to the contrary.
That is the purpose behind Rule 404(b). Evidence of prior criminal acts are inadmissible to prove that the defendant acted in conformity with that character on a given occasion, although such evidence may be admissible for other purposes. For example, to establish a motive for the defendant to have killed the victim, the prosecutor might be allowed to introduce evidence of a prior assault that occurred between the two.
People v. Dabbs (2010) is one of the leading cases in this area. Mr. Dabbs was convicted of domestic battery, in part because the state was allowed to introduce evidence of prior domestic violence that involved another victim, pursuant to Section 115-7.4 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
In affirming the conviction, the Illinois Supreme Court observed that criminal history evidence is admissible if it is not unduly inflammatory and is not offered to prove actions occurred in conformity with prior character. The court specifically held that the Code provision was constitutional because it served a legitimate state interest (e.g. reducing the recidivism rate in domestic violence cases).
Moreover, under 404(a)(1), the prosecutor may admit evidence of bad character, which includes a criminal history, to rebut a claim of good character. So, if the defendant testifies that “I am a good person and I would not have committed this act,” the defendant has “opened the door” for the introduction of a criminal past.
Rule 405 applies basically the same principle to character witnesses, so such evidence must be used judiciously.
Defendants may call witnesses who may testify, based on their opinions, that the defendants are persons of good character. But the prosecutor may then ask “have you heard” questions during cross-examination. For example, if Witness testifies that Defendant is a peaceful person, the prosecutor may ask “Have you heard that Defendant was convicted of armed robbery in 2010?”
The question is proper, because technically, the prosecutor wants to prove that Witness’ character testimony is flawed and not that Defendant is an armed robber.
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