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Evidence of a victim's prior violent conduct may be probative of whether the victim was the first aggressor where a claim of self-defense has been asserted and the identity of the first aggressor is in dispute. Consequently, when such circumstances are present, as a matter of common-law principle, trial judges have the discretion to admit in evidence specific incidents of violence that the victim is reasonably alleged to have initiated. While there is potential for confusion and prejudice inherent in the admission of this type of evidence, trial judges are well equipped to decide whether the probative value of the evidence proffered outweighs its prejudicial effect in the context of the facts and issues presented in specific cases.
Defendant Rhonda Adjutant, a woman employed by an escort service, arrived at the victim's residence to provide a massage. A disagreement occurred over whether defendant was to have sexual intercourse with the victim. There was conflicting testimony as to when defendant and the victim armed themselves. However, the victim struck defendant in the leg with a crowbar. During the subsequent struggle, defendant twice stabbed the victim. According to defendant, the victim continued to block her exit when one of her drivers kicked in the door. Defendant then stabbed the victim in the neck, which resulted in the victim's death. Two of the victim's neighbors testified that, earlier that evening, the victim appeared intoxicated and had made unsuccessful sexual advances toward women near the apartment building. Defendant was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. On appeal, defendant argued that evidence of the victim's violent reputation and past conduct, even though unknown to her at the time of the killing, should have been admitted because it was relevant to her claim that the victim was the "first aggressor" in the altercation in which she claimed self-defense.
Under the circumstances, should the lower court have admitted the evidence of the victim’s violent reputation and past conduct?
The judgment of the trial court was reversed and the matter was remanded for a new trial. The appellate court held that there was no doubt that at least some of the proffered evidence was relevant to defendant's self-defense claim. The evidence, if admitted, would have supported the inference that the victim, with a history of violent behavior while intoxicated, probably acted in conformity with that history by attacking defendant, and that defendant's story of self-defense was truthful. Thus, the exclusion prejudiced defendant.