About a year after a previous jury was unable to decide whether rock and roll legend Phil Spector murdered Lana Clarkson, Spector went on trial again in Los Angeles in Nov. 2008. Some of the facts are clear: An inebriated Spector met Clarkson at a late night club and she accompanied Spector to his large home in a limo. Shortly thereafter, a gun was fired and Clarkson was dead. Spector is the only person who may know exactly what happened, and he did not testify at the first trial and presumably will not do so in the retrial. The prosecution contends that Spector, who owns a variety of guns, shot Clarkson in a drunken rage after she refused to sleep with him. The defense contends that Clarkson was depressed, got hold of one of Spector's guns, and committed suicide.
No matter what version of the story is accurate, it is sad and tragic. One type of evidence, however, relates squarely to the issue of what constitutes a fair trial. A long-standing rule of trial forbids prosecutors from offering "character evidence," or evidence offered in order to attack defendants' character. The rule is epitomized by the familiar phrase that "we judge the act and not the actor." The no-character-evidence rule forbids prosecutors from offering evidence of defendants' past crimes and other misdeeds, simply to show that "the defendant is a bad guy and is just the sort of person who would have committed the charged crime."
Despite this general rule, the judge in Spector's first trial allowed the prosecution to call women to testify that a drunken Spector had assaulted them with guns, usually following their refusals to sleep with him. (The assaults stopped short of actual gunshots.) The judge in the retrial will probably allow the jury to hear the same evidence.
Does evidence of Spector's prior assaults constitute character evidence? If so, the judge should not allow the jury to hear the evidence. However, the rule barring character evidence is subject to a number of exceptions. The exceptions are called "non-character grounds of admissibility." For example, if the defendant's prior misdeeds are unique and nearly identical to a charged crime, the judge may allow evidence of prior misdeeds on the theory that they are not admitted to show the defendant's character, but rather to prove that all the acts were committed by the same person. Even if a defendant's prior misdeeds are neither unique nor identical, a judge may allow a jury to hear of them as evidence of a defendant's intent or motive.
The issue of whether prior misdeeds constitute character evidence and are therefore inadmissible, or are admissible on a non-character theory, can be one of the most important decisions a trial judge has to make. Prior misdeeds have the potential to strongly and unfairly bias a jury against a defendant. At the same time, a judge's failure to recognize a legitimate non-character ground of admissibility denies the prosecution legitimate and often powerful evidence of guilt.
In Spector's retrial, lacking eyewitnesses, the prosecution no doubt hopes to persuade the jury that Spector's prior assaults constitute strong evidence of guilt.