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Conviction Reversed Due to Improper Use of Character Evidence

The Tennessee Rules of Evidence provide for limited circumstances under which a witness' credibility may be attacked or supported by opinion or reputation. Evidence of a witness' character for truthfulness or untruthfulness may be admissible. Before character for truthfulness is admissible though, the character of the witness for truthfulness must first have been attacked. Tennessee Rules of Evidence, Rule 608(a). In the recent case of State v. Thomas, M2010-01394-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 10-4-2011), the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals explains that attacking the credibility of a statement a witness has made is not the same thing as attacking the witness' character for truthfulness.

The Defendant was on trial for aggravated sexual battery. During the trial, defense counsel attempted to cast doubt on the credibility of accusations made by the victim. He cross-examined witnesses about the victim's demeanor and behavior during an interview with a detective, suggesting the victim was not taking the situation seriously. In addition, during cross-examination of the victim, defense counsel suggested the victim's testimony at trial was inconsistent with previous statements she had given. The State sought to call rebuttal witnesses to testify that the victim was a truthful person. The State argued successfully to the trial court that defense counsel, in suggesting that the victim was fabricating the allegations, had attacked the victim's character for truthfulness.

The Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed with the State and the trial court. In addition, as the victim's credibility was critical to the case, the Court found the improper admission of this testimony to be reversible error. The Court distinguished between an attack on the victim's credibility as it pertained specifically to the case, as opposed to an attack on her general character for truthfulness. In the Court's view, the Defense had only attacked the credibility of her testimony, and had not attacked her character. Therefore, testimony supporting her character for truthfulness was inadmissible.

For more information on the admissibility of specific evidence at trial, contact Hindman & Associates.

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