Legal Ease, March 17

Why can't the jury hear the whole story?


In the recent Kwasi Benjamin murder trial in Montreal, the jury was not allowed to hear about Benjamin’s previous conviction for physical abuse of the woman he killed or his breaches of a court-ordered condition that he stay away from her.

The jury didn’t know Benjamin had been released from jail just three days before he committed murder.

At first blush that seems very odd indeed. Surely this is powerful evidence that the accused is guilty? And shouldn’t the jury hear all the facts?

Well, a jury is entitled to hear the facts, but that’s limited to the facts that are relevant to the case before them.

That means that we look to the evidence against an accused related to the offence for which the accused is charged.

Except in very rare cases, the conduct of the accused on other occasions is not relevant.

Someone is on trial for what they did or didn’t do at a given time and not for what type of person they are. A person’s character is not the subject of trial.

Now you can argue with that. I wouldn’t hire a babysitter who had a record for child abuse—even if that record was 10 years old.

In our daily life, someone’s character is the main basis upon which we judge them.

But consider someone on trial. If all sorts of stuff about what they did some other time can be dredged up, how can anyone defend themselves?

And a jury could get confused with all the facts of bad behaviour and decide, “Well, the accused is a rat, so he probably did it, so let’s convict regardless of the evidence of the specific crime.”

Trials must be fair to the accused.

Now once in a while other conduct can be considered by a jury. But those are rare cases where the past conduct is so similar to the conduct alleged that it seems inescapable that the same person did both things.

So a person who has robbed five convenience stores with a flip-knife while wearing a Donald Trump mask and shouting “give me the money” in French is probably the same guy who did the same thing in the sixth store.

But this is rare and you have to exclude coincidence or someone being a copycat.

In any event, even without the evidence, the jury convicted Benjamin.

James Morton is a lawyer practising in Nunavut with offices in Iqaluit. The comments here are intended as general legal information and not as specific legal advice.

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