Prior Bad Acts in Massachusetts Domestic Violence Cases

It is not uncommon for Massachusetts domestic violence cases to arise after multiple violent acts by the defendant. Some of these may be documented by the police. Others are only known to the two partners. Whether the judge will permit testimony about a defendant’s previous treatment of his or her partner depends on the particular circumstances. Criminal evidence rules restrict an alleged victim’s testimony and evidence on the subject of “prior bad acts” of the defendant, except for certain purposes.

In a recent case, a defendant appealed on the basis of a judge’s instructions to the jury about prior bad acts. He was convicted of assault and battery of his girlfriend. The appellate court explained that the jury could have found particular facts that justified the judge’s ruling.

The defendant and victim met in Seattle in 2010 and moved to Massachusetts the following year so that the defendant could pursue a graduate degree at MIT. After moving to Massachusetts, the two began arguing over the victim’s relationship with a male friend. The defendant was verbally abusive and sometimes physically abusive as well. Once, the defendant pushed her into a wall, creating a hole about three feet across.

In 2012, the two got in an argument during which the defendant slapped her. The victim asked him to leave. He pushed her in a wall and pinned her to the ground and tried to put in a sock in her mouth. She reported the event to the police.

At the trial, the Commonwealth successfully asked the court to permit the admission of evidence of the defendant’s prior abusive acts to show the defendant’s pattern of conduct and the nature of the couple’s relationship. At trial, the judge told the jury that the evidence was admitted only to show a pattern of conduct.

When he appealed, the defendant argued that by limiting the jury’s use of these prior bad acts solely to show a pattern of conduct rather than the hostility in their relationship, the jury was allowed to consider the evidence for an improper purpose: propensity to commit the crimes charged.

In Massachusetts, evidence of prior bad acts cannot be used to show bad character or a propensity to commit a crime. The evidence can be admitted, however, to show a common scheme or pattern of operation or that there was no accident. The admissibility of evidence to show a particular purpose is dependent on a judge’s discretion.

In general, however, prior bad acts aren’t admissible to show a pattern of conduct unless there is something very unique that is common to both the prior bad act and the charged crime. When domestic violence is at issue, the Commonwealth need only show reasonable similarity of the acts. The appellate court reasoned that, in this case, evidence of the defendant’s abuse of the victim and his controlling nature were relevant to show the defendant’s pattern or course of conduct.

The appellate court also explained that the judge could have admitted the evidence for other permitted purposes, such as to show the relationship between the parties. It reasoned, however, that no prejudice had come from the instruction because the judge had expressly told the jury that it couldn’t use the evidence of prior abuse to conclude the defendant had a criminal or bad character or propensity to commit the crimes.

The court also considered that the victim had testified about a restraining order. The defendant didn’t move to strike the testimony that day. The next day, he asked for a limiting instruction about the restraining order. The judge found the request untimely.

The defendant argued that the jury was then able to consider the restraining order as evidence he had actually committed the acts the victim claimed he had committed, for which he was on trial. The appellate court explained that a judge can refuse to limit the scope of evidence if there is no request for a limiting instruction at the time the evidence is presented to the jury.

If you were arrested for assault or another type of domestic violence, contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy today to discuss your Massachusetts criminal charges. Call us at 617-367-0450 or through this website.

More Blog Posts:

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Defendant in Mandatory Minimum Case Alleyne v. U.S., Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published December 19, 2013
Court of Appeals Ruling Affirms Prior Conviction Record Insufficient to Establish Identity, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published December 11, 2013

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