In a decision released today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court broadened the scenarios under which a defendant claiming self-defense can bring up a victim's violent reputation and past conduct.
The case involved an escort who went to client's apartment, balked when he asked for sex (a full body massage and an hour's worth of companionship was the deal) and she tried to leave. Stephen Whiting (the victim) pushed her down, grabbed a crowbar and starting attacking her. The escort, Rhonda Adjutant, grabbed a knife lying on a table, and stabbed/slashed Whiting. Adjutant was on the phone with her dispatcher the whole time. The dispatcher told her drivers to return to the apartment, and as they busted through the door, they saw Adjutant stab Whiting in the neck after he advanced on her. He eventually dropped, and the escort and her two drivers fled the scene. A neighbor saw the body a few hours later and called the cops.
At trial, Adjutant tried to introduce evidence of Whiting's violent temper and prior acts, like chasing his neighbors and throwing boiling water on a freind with whom he was having an argument. They also tried to get evidence of how he acted when he was drunk or high (he had snorted cocaine while the escort was at his apartment). The trial judge ruled against her, saying that evidence was only relevant if Adjutant herself was aware of his violent tendencies beforehand.
Adjutant maintained at trial that all her actions were defensive and intended to help her escape the apartment. The jury's main task was determining whether Adjutant acted in self-defense. That inquiry required the jury to weigh Adjutant's credibility, as well as that of the dispatcher and the driver, and decide who moved first to attack the other during the last moments of the standoff. She was convicted at trial of voluntary manslaughter, and sentenced to 9 to 12 years. The Appeals Court upheld the verdict, but the SJC overturned it and sent the case back for a new trial.
"The basis of ...admitting some form of this evidence can be found in the view that evidence reflecting the victim's propensity for violence has substantial probative value and will help the jury identify who the first aggressor was when the circumstances of the altercation are in dispute."
"Whether Whiting was a violent man, prone to aggression when intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, 'throws light' on the crucial question at the heart of Adjutant's self-defense claim -- who attacked first in the final moments before the fatal stabbing."
"The Commonwealth argues that juries invariably will be distracted by information about the victim's unrelated prior violence. We disagree. This court has previously approved the admission of evidence of a victim's history of violence, when known to the defendant. If juries are capable of receiving such evidence for the limited purpose of evaluating the reasonableness of a defendant's apprehension, they are capable of weighing similar evidence relevant to the first aggressor issue. While we acknowledge that there is a possibility that juries may misunderstand the purpose for which the evidence is offered, and agree that they should be specifically instructed on that point, the greater danger here is prejudice to the defendant's case. We share the preference of...that the jury should have as complete a picture of the (often fatal) altercation as possible before deciding on the defendant's guilt:"
"...where the identity of the first aggressor is in dispute and the victim has a history of violence, we hold that the trial judge has the discretion to admit evidence of specific acts of prior violent conduct that the victim is reasonably alleged to have initiated, to support the defendant's claim of self-defense."
"Juries should have the ability to draw their own inferences in assessing the bearing of the victim's prior violent conduct on the probability that he was the first aggressor."
"While constrained by the trial judge's sound discretion, the defendant's ability to introduce evidence of the victim's prior history as a violent aggressor should also be matched with safeguards for prosecutors. A defendant who intends to introduce evidence of the victim's specific acts of violence to support a claim that the victim was the first aggressor must provide notice to the court and the Commonwealth of such intent and of the specific evidence he intends to offer. This notice must come sufficiently prior to trial to permit the Commonwealth to investigate and prepare a rebuttal. The prosecutor, in turn, must provide notice to the court and the defendant of whatever rebuttal evidence he or she intends to offer at trial."
In a footnote, the court also said, "We need not decide in this case whether the Commonwealth may introduce evidence of prior violent incidents initiated by the defendant once the defendant has done so with respect to the victim, for the purpose of proving who was the first aggressor. We note that [Federal Rules of Evidence were] amended in 2000, opening the door to the admission of such evidence once the accused attacks the character of the victim for this purpose, making clear that the accused cannot simultaneously attack the alleged victim's character and yet remain shielded from the disclosure of equally relevant evidence concerning his own same character trait. At a minimum, once evidence of the victim's violent conduct is admitted, the prosecutor may introduce evidence of the victim's peaceful propensities."
Note that this new common-law rule applies only to cases where the "first aggressor" is unknown and is in dispute.
The case is Commonwealth v. Adjutant, and I found it on Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.
As always, consult expert legal advice for further analysis.