443 Mass. 649 (March 14, 2005)

SJC announces new common-law rule of evidence: When the theory of self-defense is raised and the identity of the first aggressor is in dispute, evidence of the victim's aggressive and violent character is admissible, regardless of when the defendant learned of it.

The defendant, employed by an escort service, stabbed and killed a client when he demanded more services than he paid for that night. The defendant maintained at trial that all her actions were defensive in that the defendant had come after her with a crow bar. The defendant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and appealed claiming 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 at trial" because it was relevant to her claim that the victim was the "first aggressor" and that she acted in self-defense.

New Rule:

In reaching its decision, the SJC adopted a new common-law rule of evidence that shall apply only prospectively. Trial judges now have the discretion to admit evidence of specific incidents of violence that a victim is reasonably alleged to have initiated - but only in cases where the defendant is claiming self-defense and the issue of who the first aggressor was, is in dispute.

In this case, the defendant sought to introduce evidence of violent acts committed by the victim close in time to the incident in question, (e.g. chasing neighbors while in a drug-impaired state, threatening neighbors with a butcher knife, and throwing boiling water on a friend). The trial judge ruled that incidents involving the victim's aggressive conduct were only relevant if the defendant was aware of them at the time of the stabbing. However, in reviewing the case, the SJC was "persuaded that some form of evidence tending to show the victim's violent character should be admissible, for the limited purpose of supporting the defendant's self-defense claim that the victim was the first aggressor."

Form of the Evidence:

After much discussion, the Court held that the evidence must be in the form of specific acts of prior violent conduct that the victim is reasonably alleged to have initiated. Reputation evidence, which in the Court's view, is "often 'opinion in disguise,' " will not be admissible in these circumstances. "We favor the admission of concrete and relevant evidence of specific acts over more general evidence of the victim's reputation for violence."

Procedure:

A defendant must provide timely notice to the court and the Commonwealth of his intent to introduce evidence of specific acts of violence and identify the specific acts. Likewise, the Commonwealth must provide notice of whatever rebuttal evidence it intends to offer at trial.

Unresolved:

The SJC did not decide "whether the Commonwealth may introduce evidence of prior violent acts initiated by the defendant once the defendant has done so with respect to the victim, for the purpose of proving who was the first aggressor."