From the Bench: A judge’s perspective on prior bad acts

Posted at 5:36 PM, August 18, 2023

By: Judge Ashley Willcott

In ‘The Widower’ Murder Trial, prior bad acts are not allowed. But in Alex Murdaugh‘s case in South Carolina, they were allowed. Why? What’s the difference?

In one of Court TV’s current live trials, Nevada widower Thomas Randolph is on trial for a second time for the 2008 shooting deaths of his wife and the hitman he allegedly conspired with to kill her. In a trial Court TV covered earlier this year, Murdaugh was convicted of gunning down his wife and son.

As a former judge, there are three things I want you to know.

1. The prior bad acts must be relevant. If they’re not relevant, they’re not admissible.

2. They have to be admissible under the rules of evidence. This means that you can’t bring in information that simply shows the bad character of a person. There are some exceptions, and it has to be to prove something like motive, opportunity, intent, or preparation. Then, it can come in. Otherwise, it cannot.

3. It’s a balancing act. The judge has to decide that the probative value outweighs the prejudicial value, because you can’t let something in that’s going to be so prejudicial that the jury says, “They had to have done it, because look at that other horrible thing they did!”

At the end of the day, it’s a case-by-case determination for the court, so every case is going to be a little different.

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