Brief Fact Summary. Zackowitz (D) was convicted of first degree murder for shooting a man who made a lewd comment to his wife.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. In a criminal prosecution, character is never an issue unless the defendant chooses to make it one.
If a murderous propensity may be proved against a defendant as one of the tokens of his guilt, a rule of criminal evidence, long believed to be of fundamental importance for the protection of the innocent, must be first declared away.View Full Point of Law
Issue. Whether the defendant’s state of mind at the moment he shot Coppola was deliberate and premeditated or whether he was driven by impulsive rage.
Held. This court believes evidence was prejudiced against the defendant and thus the judgment be reversed and a new trial ordered.
Cardozo stresses the fact that the issue of whether the defendant’s state of mind was deliberate or impulsive is so narrow and delicate that there must be no blurring of issues by evidence that is illegally admitted. This could lead to prejudice by the jurors.
The prosecution in this case emphasized on the defendant’s evil character and “murderous disposition”. The character of the defendant cannot be raised in a criminal trial unless the defendant raises it first. Here, the defendant did not raise his character first and thus the prosecution’s attack on his character was wrongfully allowed at trial.
Dissent. The defendant was not presented to jury as one having a “dangerous disposition” but rather as someone who had the opportunity to carry out his threats with a weapon and did so.
Discussion. When evidence of the defendant’s bad character is brought first by the prosecution, it is likely to prejudice the jury and therefore it is illegal to bring such evidence to prove the state of mind of the defendant.