“‘Evidence of good character is substantive and positive evidence, not a mere make weight to be considered in a doubtful case, and, . . . is an independent factor which may of itself engender reasonable doubt or produce a conclusion of innocence.’” Commonwealth v. Luther, 463 A.2d 1073 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1983).
Character evidence: it’s powerful stuff. Too often criminal trials come down to a he-said-he-said story, and a verdict is determined by who is more believable. Even considering that prosecutors must hurdle the highest burden of proof—“beyond a reasonable doubt”—to obtain a conviction, leaving a case up to a credibility contest is nonetheless a risky endeavor. Under such circumstances, calling a witness who can testify about the accused’s character for peacefulness and law-abiding nature—i.e. a character witness—can make all of the difference.
In jury trials, a powerful jury instruction is available to the accused who calls character witnesses at trial. The instruction reads in part as follows:
The law recognizes that a person of good character is not likely to commit a crime that is contrary to that person’s nature. Evidence of good character may be itself raise a reasonable doubt of guilt and require a verdict of not guilty.
Say no more, right? Well . . . maybe not. While character evidence, if believed by the jury, is enough to raise a reasonable doubt, that should not automatically justify calling character witnesses.
A good trial attorney does not use character witnesses lightly. A lot of trial strategy is involved in this regard. Understand, a person accused of a crime does not need to do anything at trial, and only the accused may offer evidence of her own character. The prosecution is prohibited from addressing the character of the accused first. But in the event that character evidence is introduced by the accused, the rules of evidence essentially say that character is fair game for the prosecutor. In this way, character can be a game changer but not to the benefit of the defense. Therefore, careful consideration should be given to using character evidence.