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Prior misconduct negates self-defense claim

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Evidence of a defendant's prior alleged domestic violence incidents against his ex-wife shouldn't have been admitted to explain the ex-wife's animosity toward him, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded today. However, the evidence was admissible because it was relevant to prove the ex-husband's motive to commit the domestic violence he was charged with in the instant case.

In Christopher R. Embry v. State of Indiana, No. 30A04-0906-CR-346, Christopher Embry challenged the admittance of five prior incidents of domestic violence he allegedly committed against his ex-wife, Miki. Embry was charged with Class D felony domestic battery in the instant case after he and Miki got into a physical altercation at her house in which he pushed her to the ground and hit her. Embry claimed he was acting in self-defense. The trial court initially granted Embry's motion that the previous incidents were inadmissible under Indiana Evidence Rules 404(b) and 403.

While on the stand, the defense counsel asked Miki about derogatory comments she had written about Embry on her blog. Based on her testimony, the trial court found Embry had opened the door to allow evidence of the prior incidents and allowed the state to question Miki about them. Embry was found guilty.

The state claimed the evidence of his prior acts of violence was admissible either to rehabilitate Miki's credibility or to prove Embry's motive for committing the crime. The appellate court rejected the state's first argument. Some jurisdictions have held that if the defense elicits a bias on the part of a state's witness, the state can respond by introducing the defendant's prior uncharged misconduct to explain the witness' antipathy. The judges decided not to adopt that view. Instead, they believed the use of uncharged misconduct in this manner belies the rules and purposes of witness rehabilitation.

"Offering the defendant's prior bad acts to explain a witness's animosity only reinforces - rather than disproves - the witness's disposition. Introduction of the defendant's uncharged misconduct thus violates the rule of logical refutation and has no rehabilitative value," wrote Judge Nancy Vaidik.

However, that evidence was relevant to show Embry's motive to commit the domestic battery charge. If a defendant claims self-defense and he advances a claim of particular contrary intent, it allows the state to be able to use his prior misconduct to disprove the victim was the first aggressor, the judge wrote.

"Embry's prior acts of violence against Miki evidenced his hostility toward her, which in turn was admissible to demonstrate his motive for a violent attack, which made more probable the conclusion that he assaulted her and instigated the entire physical confrontation," she wrote.

Although there was a danger of prejudice given the number of prior bad acts mentioned, the trial court gave a limiting instruction and admonished the jury that the evidence wasn't admitted to demonstrate character or prove action in conformity therewith, so there was no error in admitting the evidence.

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