Does character matter in criminal and university discipline cases? Yes, In a criminal trial or at a university hearing evidence of your good character can help you, or your persistent bad character can haunt you. Let’s talk about how.
In a criminal case the “Rules of Evidence” (i.e. the rules that govern what evidence is permitted to be considered in trial) allow for the introduction of evidence of the defendant’s “pertinent trait of character.”1 For example, if you are on trial and someone you know well has the opinion that you are an honest person, that person can testify and say so. Similarly, if someone knows your reputation in the community to be that of an honest person, the witness can testify to your reputation as well. Note that the opposite is also true, especially after you have “opened the door” by discussing your good character: the prosecution could bring their own witnesses to say that they believe that you are a dishonest person or that you have a reputation for being dishonest.
While witnesses can give their opinions and discuss your reputation for pertinent character traits in a criminal trial, they often cannot get into specific instances of your good or bad character.2 So for example in an assault trial, your best friend could testify that he has known you a long time, and that you are a “non-aggressive person,” but he could not provide an anecdotal story about how you once broke up a fight at a bar. Of course, perhaps the most powerful negative character evidence that can be presented at trial is your prior felony record, or even misdemeanor record if it includes crimes of dishonesty.3 Evidence of prior convictions is generally only admissible if you testify (i.e. if you exercise your right to remain silent it will likely not come up), so be prepared.
In my experience character evidence has an even greater impact in university discipline cases. These hearings usually do not follow the rules of evidence, so the types of character evidence that can be presented are much more robust. I always advise my clients to gather together several letters from people who know them well and can attest to their good character. Having these individuals testify in person or via Skype can also go a long way. In terms of “bad” character evidence at a university hearing, you can expect your prior infractions at the school and your grades to be considered by the hearing officer(s) in reaching a decision. Prior disciplinary infractions and poor grades both signal to university officials that you are at a high risk of reoffending.
Character evidence can be tricky. To be frank, I find that even most experienced attorneys do not know the intricacies of the rules. You need a strong Trial Lawyer well versed in the Rules of Evidence [here is a fun trick, ask your lawyer to name the character evidence rule off the top of his or her head]. At university hearings, certain categories of people seem to work best at influencing the hearing officer, so be sure to consult with an experienced University Discipline Attorney before the hearing.
Most importantly, foster good character within yourself so that you can always use it to your advantage.
1 See for example Federal Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2)(A)
2 See Federal Rules of Evidence 405(a) and 608
3 See Federal Rule of Evidence 609