State v. Bass, 371 N.C. 535 (Oct. 26, 2018)

On appeal from a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 802 S.E.2d 477 (2017), the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the trial court properly excluded specific instances of the victim’s violent conduct for the purpose of proving that he was the first aggressor. The charges arose from the defendant’s shooting of the victim. The defendant asserted self-defense. In his case in chief, the defendant sought to introduce testimony describing specific instances of violent conduct by the victim, specifically testimony from three witnesses about times when they had experienced or witnessed the victim’s violent behavior. The trial court excluded this evidence but allowed each witness to testify to his or her opinion of the victim’s character for violence and the victim’s reputation in the community. Construing the relevant evidence rules, the Supreme Court determined that character is not an essential element of self-defense. Therefore, with regard to a claim of self-defense, the victim’s character may not be proved by evidence of specific acts. Here, the excluded evidence consisted of specific incidents of violence committed by the victim. Because Rule 405 limits the use of specific instances of past conduct to cases in which character is an essential element of the charge, claim, or defense, the trial court properly excluded testimony regarding these specific prior acts of violence by the victim.