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What Can Bill Cosby Teach Us About The Rules of Evidence?


How much can your prior bad acts, alleged or proven, be used against you in court? This is a central question in the case against Bill Cosby in Pennsylvania. And, while this case has drawn a lot of attention due to the celebrity of the defendant, the questions about the rules of evidence are the types of issues we deal with all the time in the courts of Maine.

Watch the video to learn more from Merritt Heminway.

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Below is a transcript of the video:

Study of prior bad acts: will it be used against Bill Cosby?

I recently read a New Yorker article about a recent arrest and bail hearing of Bill Cosby. Who has now been accused in the state of Pennsylvania for sexual assault. And it’s an interesting case just from the outset because it appears that there is simply one victim in this particular case in Pennsylvania. But as we all know from reading the press reports over the past six or nine months or so that there are many many women who claim similar crimes were committed against him by Mr. Cosby.

It’s a very dangerous situation for Mr. Cosby of course because the big question is whether or not the state will be able to introduce a trial all of the stories of all of these other women who are not in the state of Pennsylvania. And so can the state of Pennsylvania get a conviction against Mr. Cosby for an allegedly assault on one woman in the state of Pennsylvania by telling the story of all of these other women from other states at other times.

That’s a close call and different judge will come down on that call in different ways. And it’s a kind of evidentiary argument that we have quite a bit. We call it prior bad acts. In other words, to what extent are the previous bad acts of the defendant admissible in court. To what extent, to what extent is the jury allowed to hear about other terrible things that the defendant may have done that don’t have anything really to do with what is actually the case. There is a general understanding in the rules of evidence tell us that a jury should not be able to consider other stuff that is not related that happened way before.

But, if those prior bad acts fit a pattern or particular MO or have a certain signature character to them, then some judges will let in all of that evidence as a way for the jury to see that what they are accused of fits a pattern. And therefore the defendant will more likely to be guilty. So that is a critical evidentiary argument that the Bill Cosby case will be having shortly and we will all be watching it closely.

The question is whether a woman say, from California, who claims that she was sexual Lee assaulted by Mr. Cosby 20 years ago, will she be allowed to testify in Pennsylvania about her story? Is it relevant at all to what happened and Pennsylvania 10 years ago? Is an interesting story because it involves Mr. Cosby and it has that gloss of celebrity gossip to it but the actual argument that will take place is in that case is extremely similar to the argument that we have all the time in the courts of Maine, and in this office.

If a person is charged with burglary for example, does that theft or burglary fit a certain pattern that also matches other burglaries that may have happened in the past, very similar evidentiary argument. Will the state be able to introduce prior acts that seem to match a type of signature in order to help them and prove the defendant guilty of what he’s actually charged with. The logic behind not allowing the journey to hear about prior bad acts is that the jury may be emotionally confused or more likely to assume that a person has just a bad character.

And whether or not a person her is a good person or bad person or a good character or a bad character has nothing to do whether they committed the crime. And so when a state is seeking to prove beyond a  reasonable doubt that a defendant committed a particular crime. The jury should not be able to infer that they must’ve done it because they are just a bad person. And so we say that the state cannot introduce evidence of them being a bad person in the past because it is just not relevant to the actual issue before the court at that moment.

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