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 General prohibition against the use of propensity evidence in criminal cases has been firmly engrained in American jurisprudence throughout much of the nation's history. Precisely when this common law rule first gained consistent application in this country is unclear. David P. Leonard, The New Wigmore: Evidence of Other Misconduct and Similar Events § 2.3, at 29 n.1 ('Some date the establishment of the rule to 1810, while others find evidence of it in earlier times.')


Courts that follow the common-law tradition almost unanimously have come to disallow resort by the prosecution to any kind of evidence of a defendant's evil character to establish a probability of his guilt. Not that the law invests the defendant with a presumption of good character, but it simply closes the whole matter of character, disposition and reputation on the prosecution's case-in-chief. The State may not show defendant's prior trouble with the law, specific criminal acts, or ill name among his neighbors, even though such facts might logically be persuasive that he is by propensity a probable perpetrator of the crime. The inquiry is not rejected because character is irrelevant; on the contrary, it is said to weigh too much with ...

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