Before a homicide trial begins, some of the most important questions concern what evidence can be used. For example, the Federal Rules of Evidence put strict limits on the prosecution's ability to introduce evidence that the defendant was convicted of a different crime.
This limitation on evidence is playing a big role in a murder trial scheduled to begin this month. A Pennsylvania court is set to begin hearing the case of a man accused of gunning down a driver on I-81 in 2014. Prosecutors say the defendant shot and killed the motorist, thinking he was someone else.
An acquaintance of the defendant told Pennsylvania police that the defendant was responsible for the 2014 killing after the defendant had already been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 2016 slaying of another person in Virginia. He was extradited to Pennsylvania in order to face trial for the 2014 killing.
At a pre-trial hearing in March, the defendant's lawyer asked the court to suppress evidence of the Virginia case, as it could prejudice the jury in the Pennsylvania case. The judge agreed that the jury should not read interviews from that case and should not be told that the defendant was convicted.
The Federal Rules of Evidence says that evidence of a crime is not admissible to prove a person's character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character. In other words, a prosecutor generally can't use evidence the defendant committed one crime in order to convince the jury that the defendant committed another crime as well. Juries are supposed to make their decisions based on the evidence in the case before them, not based on whether they think the defendant is just the kind of person who would commit a particular crime.
However, there are exceptions to this rule, and a lot of preparing for a trial involves arguing over the exceptions.
Everyone accused of a crime deserves a defense. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help protect the accused from prejudicial evidence.