One of the ways to attempt to undermine the credibility of a witness at trial is to offer testimony about a person’s character for telling the truth.
Under Maryland law, certain witnesses are now allowed to give an opinion as to whether another witness is a truthful person.
Just how this works in a criminal case was explored by Maryland’s highest Court in a 6-1 decision this week in the case of Julius Devincentz, Jr. v. State of Maryland.
The majority opinion indicates that the defendant was in a relationship with the mother of the allege victim, “K.C.”, who for a number of year lived with her mother and Devincentz along with his other children including a son named Joshua.
Years later K.C. was living in a juvenile facility, and told a counselor the defendant had sexually abused her when she was six or seven.
At trial on a number of charges including sexual abuse of a minor and sexual assault, K.C. was the principal witness.
She testified to episodes of sexual assault when she was young and living with the defendant and his children.
The defense then called defendant’s son Joshua. He said that K.C. liked to argue with family members, “and she would not tell the truth about certain things.”
The judge sustained the State’s objection to that testimony about truthfulness, and to testimony from Joshua that K.C. would say things to get Devincentz in trouble during a fight.
The jury convicted the defendant of charges of sexual abuse and assault, and his appeal was considered by the Court of Appeals.
The majority opinion noted that whether to allow testimony from a character witness is within the discretion of the trial judge. The Maryland rules now allow a witness to offer an opinion about another person’s character for truthfulness and the basis for that opinion, provided the evidence is relevant and the witness has an adequate basis to form an opinion.
Here, where Joshua had known K.C. since she was 6 or 7 and lived with her for over six years observing her in the family, the majority found that there was a sufficient basis for the opinion and the trial judge erred in not allowing the testimony.
Since K.C.’s credibility was critical to the prosecution’s case, the Court reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.