In Goggins v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals made an important ruling concerning the presentation of character evidence in child molestation cases.
The Court held that under Georgia’s new evidence code, when the defendant’s character is an essential element of his defense, he is permitted to elicit testimony from character witnesses concerning specific instances of the defendant’s conduct that are consistent with his good character.
The defendant was convicted at trial of child molestation and argued on appeal that the trial court improperly limited the scope of evidence concerning his good character.
Generally speaking in Georgia, on direct examination of a defendant’s character witnesses, defense counsel may not go into specific instances of conduct. However, the Court of Appeals stated that “where, as here, the defendant testifies as to his good character and such character is an essential element of his defense, both the defendant and his witnesses are permitted to testify on direct examination as to specific instances of the defendant’s conduct pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 24-4-405(b).”
This is an important evidentiary ruling for defendants accused of child molestation offenses in Georgia. The Court essentially held that in a child molestation case where the defendant’s character is an element of his defense, his character witnesses are permitted to testify as to specific instances of the defendant’s good conduct. This is a liberal interpretation of our new rules of evidence and a major departure from previous appellate decisions in Georgia which consistently limited character evidence to reputation and opinion testimony.
With respect to Goggins’ case, however, the Court of Appeals noted that some of the witnesses did testify as to certain instances of conduct that showed the defendant’s good character. For example, one witness testified that he had left his own child in the defendant’s care unsupervised. Another witness testified that he visited the defendant’s family often, and on several occasions observed the defendant interacting with his children “just as a father should.” The defendant also testified about his work history of significant leadership positions in the military and the fact that for a time, as the primary caregiver for his children, he took them to school, assisted them with homework, cooked their meals, etc. The Court of Appeals noted that the defendant failed to identify any specific instance of conduct that a witness could have testified to, but that was excluded by the trial court. Thus, the Court rejected Goggins’ claim that the trial court improperly restricted his presentation of good character evidence.
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