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The Williams Rule: The Importance of Character Evidence in a Criminal Proceeding

During a criminal proceeding, the most important deciding factor for how the proceeding will be determined is based largely on ruling made by the jury. Even more important is the evidence that is admitted during the proceeding, which will be evaluated and assessed by the jury when deciding the outcome of the case.

Rules of evidence are extremely important, as they determine the types of evidence that will be admitted during trial and will ultimately be evaluated by the jury as to what the evidence means with regards to the crime. Admitting or rejecting a defendant’s confession note or the weapon in question could make all the difference in the world as to how the jury will rule against a defendant, and therefore, the rules require that for every piece of evidence introduced, there needs to be specific standards met.

Character Evidence: In General

Generally, during a proceeding, evidence regarding the defendant’s character or trait is inadmissible to prove that the defendant acted in a specific way on a specific occasion. Therefore, the state may not, for example, use testimony that purports that the defendant is a violent person, as it unfairly leads the jury to believe that because the defendant was violent in the past, he/she must have been violent in the particular occasion. Further, the prosecution is barred from admitting evidence of past crimes, wrongs or acts to prove that the defendant has a bad character or has the propensity to act badly.

The Williams Rule

The state, however, may admit evidence of past crimes, wrongs, or acts when proving:

  • Motive;
  • Opportunity;
  • Intent;
  • Preparation;
  • Plan;
  • Knowledge;
  • Identity; or
  • The lack of mistake or accident.

This controversial character evidence rule is known as the Williams Rule, for a 1959 rape case, Williams v. State, which first permitted Florida prosecutors to introduce evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts which may prove that the defendant is responsible for the crime.

How the Williams Rule Works

The Williams Rule permits the state to bring in evidence of a defendant’s bad acts, crimes or wrongs when trying to show, for example, that he has a motive to commit the crime. Many times this is used to show he has a specific modus operandi, or M.O. and therefore is the offender. For example, if the defendant is being charged with robbery, the prosecution may bring in evidence showing that in the past, the defendant used an antique, one-of-a-kind gun that was painted blue, and that same one-of-a-kind gun was used in the present case.

The Controversial Aspects of the Williams Rule: Child Molestation Cases

More recently, the Williams Rule has been expanded to its more controversial application in child molestation cases whereby evidence of past sexual offenses may be considered in determining whether the defendant perpetrated a similar sexual offense in the present proceeding. The evidence of past sexual offenses may only be introduced if it satisfies the standards of evidence, the evidence is being used for corroborative purposes, the evidence is not too remote (close enough in time and incidence), and the evidence is not unduly prejudicial against the defendant.

The controversial aspect lies in the fact that evidence of past sexual offenses will always add prejudice to the defendant and his defense. Juries tend to be unable to separate past offenses from the present proceeding and may want to punish the defendant for past bad behavior he/she has already paid for, regardless of his innocence in the current proceeding. Proponents of the measure believe that these types of sexual offenses are indicative of a pattern of behavior, and the jury should know about this pattern to better understand the defendant in the present case.

Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

The Williams Rule can shine a lot of prejudicial light onto a defendant and his defense. An experienced criminal defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik will ensure that the Williams Rule is being used appropriately and will not create undue prejudice onto your case and your person. Contact the Fort Lauderdale Law Offices of Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation.

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