Evidence introduced in a trial which bears on the truth and honesty of a witness or party is termed character evidence. Evidence of a person's good or bad character; such evidence may give rise to reasonable doubt.
Character evidence includes criminal convictions and reputation in the community for honesty. Character evidence is usually permitted when a person's honesty is an issue, such as when a criminal defendant testifies or has been charged with perjury or fraud. It is not permitted when the defendant does not testify and the crime he is charged with doesn't involve the defendant's truthfulness (for example, the defendant is charged with illegal possession of drugs). Although used infrequently in civil cases, character evidence may be given in custody cases where the honesty of a party arguably affects their ability to be a good parent (for example, in the case of a habitual liar), or in cases of fault divorce.
The opinion generally entertained of a person derived from the common report of the people who are acquainted with him.
There are three classes of cases on which the moral character and conduct of a person in society may be used in proof before a jury, each resting upon particular and distinct grounds. Such evidence is admissible: 1st. To afford a presumption that a particular party has not been guilty of a criminal act; 2d. To affect the damages in particular cases, where their amount depends on the character and conduct of any individual, and; 3d. To impeach or confirm the veracity of a witness.
- 1. Where the guilt of an accused party is doubtful and the character of the supposed agent is involved in the question, a presumption of innocence arises from his former conduct in society as evidenced by his general character, since it is not probable that a person of known probity and humanity would commit a dishonest or outrageous act in the particular instance. Such presumptions, however, are so remote from fact, and it is frequently so difficult to estimate a person's real character, that they are entitled to little weight, except in doubtful cases. Since the law considers a presumption of this nature to be admissible, it is in principle admissible whenever a reasonable presumption arises from it as to the fact in question. In practice it is admitted whenever the character of the party is involved in the issue.
- 2. In some instances evidence in disparagement of character is admissible, not in order to prove or disprove the commission of a particular fact, but with a view to damages. In actions for criminal conversation with the plaintiff's wife, evidence may be given of the wife's general bad character, for want of chastity and even of particular acts of adultery committed by her, previous to her intercourse with the defendant. In actions for slander and libel, when the defendant has not justified, evidence of the plaintiff's bad character has also been admitted. The ground of admitting such evidence is, that a person of disparaged fame is not entitled to the same measure of damages with one whose character is unblemished. When, however, the defendant justifies the slander, it seems to be doubtful whether the evidence of reports as to the conduct and character of the plaintiff can be received. When evidence is admitted touching the general character of a party, it is manifest that it is to be confined to matters in reference to the nature of the charge against him.
- 3. The party against whom a witness is called, may disprove the fact& stated by him, or may examine other witnesses as to his general character; but they will not be allowed to speak of particular facts or parts of his conduct. For example, evidence of the general character of a prosecutrix for a rape may be given, such as that she was a street walker; but evidence of specific acts of criminality cannot be admitted. The regular mode is to inquire whether the witness under examination has the means of knowing the former witness general character, and whether from such knowledge he would believe him on his oath. In answer to such evidence against character, the other party may cross-examine the witness as to his means of knowledge and the grounds of his opinion; or he may attack such witness' general character and by fresh evidence support the character of his own. A party cannot give evidence to confirm the good character of a witness, unless his general character has been impugned by his antagonist.