Murder conviction overturned where trial court reversed its initial ruling that evidence of defendant’s prior misdemeanor conduct was unduly prejudicial, and allowed the evidence to impeach a statement defendant gave to police. Hall was convicted of first degree murder in the stabbing death of a man. The trial court initially excluded evidence of Hall’s prior misdemeanor conduct of brandishing a knife as unduly prejudicial. However, after Hall testified, the trial court reversed its ruling and admitted the misdemeanor conduct to impeach a statement Hall had given to police, which had been introduced by the prosecution. Hall appealed. Held: Reversed. Evidence of a defendant’s character or propensity to engage in certain conduct is generally inadmissible to prove conduct on a specific occasion (Evid. Code, § 1101, subd. (a)). However, if a defendant offers evidence of good character to prove his conduct in conformity with such character, the prosecution may offer evidence to rebut it (Evid. Code, § 1102, subds. (a) & (b)). The rebuttal evidence is limited to opinion or reputation, not specific acts of misconduct. Here, the trial court admitted Hall’s misdemeanor conduct to rebut the prosecution’s evidence of Hall’s statements to police implying his nonviolent character. But “Evidence Code section 1102, prevents the prosecution from knocking down a straw man of its own making.” The trial court’s mid-trial reversal of its ruling impermissibly burdened Hall’s right to testify without impeachment evidence previously held prejudicial, deprived him of his right to effective assistance of counsel regarding his decision to testify, and impaired his right to a fair trial.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/A147923.PDF