As I understand it, the prosecution must establish a motive, means and opportunity before a person can be convicted of a crime. However, none of these are considered evidence.

To put it another way, motive, means and opportunity can help an investigator "frame" a crime and identify suspects even before any evidence is gathered.

Now consider three other factors: character, "track record" and associations. For example, imagine a suspect who is widely regarded as sleazy - an operator in the porn industry - for example. He's on record as having lied and used drugs, even though he was never charged with any crimes in that respect. He is known to be good friends with some corrupt politicians and has business dealings with members of the local chamber of commerce, giving him political connections.

Can personal character, associations and a person's or organization's prior record (whether it includes legal convictions or not) be used in a courtroom? Also, can any of these three things be classified as "evidence"?


Those things can all be characterized as evidence, but in the United States, they are generally going to be objectionable.

Federal Rule of Evidence 404 governs the use of character evidence, past crimes, and other acts. It generally prohibits the use of character evidence to demonstrate that a person acted in accordance with that character, and it generally prohibits the use of prior convictions or other acts to demonstrate your character and to thereby prove that you acted in accordance with that character.

There's quite a bit of wiggle room in these rules, depending on whose character you're trying to prove, what kind of notice your provide, and what other justifications you might be able offer for introducing this evidence.

For instance, if Hannibal Lecter were on trial for murder by dissection, I might try to introduce evidence that he had previously dissected people. The defense would argue that I was trying to suggest that dissecting people is part of his character, but I would argue that I'm trying to prove knowledge of how to dissect a human. The judge would then have to decide how to handle that evidence, probably relying on Rule 403.

One other note: I don't think it's true that a prosecutor must establish motive, means and opportunity. Those are all pretty good things to show, but failing to prove one -- motive, in particular -- is not always going to be fatal.

  • Great answer. Just to be clear, can motive, means or opportunity be considered evidence as well? May 2 '18 at 15:17
  • No, you'd need to introduce evidence to prove any of those.
    – bdb484
    May 2 '18 at 15:51

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