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Relevant evidence of a person's bad character is generally not admissible for the purpose of showing that he acted in conformity therewith. This evidence, however, may be admissible when it is relevant to a noncharacter conformity issue of consequence in the case such as establishing intent or rebutting a defensive theory.
In this capital murder case the prosecution did not seek the death penalty against Neal Hampton Robbins, who was convicted and sentenced to life for killing the seventeen-month-old daughter of his live-in girlfriend. The prosecution presented evidence that the victim received the injuries that caused her death while she was alone with, and in the care of, Robbins in their home. Robbins and the victim lived with Robbins’ mother and the victim's mother. Evidence of previous injuries suffered by the victim while in Robbins’ care was admitted during the guilt/innocence phase of his capital murder trial. The trial court admitted the "relationship" evidence under Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 38.36(a), overruling objections that the evidence was inadmissible under Tex. R. Evid. 404(b), 403. The Court of Appeals held the evidence was admissible under both rules. Robbins argued on review that his simple plea of not guilty did not put his intent at issue. The State argued that Robbins’ plea made intent a material issue and that the evidence was probative of that issue.
During the guilt/innocence phase of Robbins’ trial, did the trial court abuse its discretion to admit evidence of previous injuries the victim suffered while she was in Robbins’ care?
The court held that while Robbins’ plea did not put his intent at issue, Robbins went beyond simply pleading not guilty through vigorous cross-examination suggesting that the victim's death was caused by a means other than Robbins’ intentional act. Thus, it was debatable whether Robbins’ intent was at issue, and the trial court would not have erred in finding that the relationship evidence was relevant to Robbins’ intent, or to the non-character conformity purpose of rebutting defendant's various defensive theories. Nor was the evidence "unfairly prejudicial" as there was no reason to believe the jury had a reasonable doubt of Robbins’ guilt but convicted him based on the relationship evidence.