Character Witness in Rape Case gets "Raked"

In a local criminal sexual abuse case, lawyer Aaron Biber had pled guilty to having sex with a 15 year old boy. Under Minnesota law, he’s entitled to a sentencing hearing before the judge imposes the sentence.

The purpose of the hearing is for both the prosecution and the defense to present evidence about the accused and/or crime that would affect the decision on sentencing. For the defense, often the evidence comes in the form of something called character witnesses. These are people who are familiar with the defendant. Hopefully, their testimony will persuade a judge to give the defendant a less severe penalty.

When Mr. Biber’s defense lawyer called the first character witness for him, the prosecution went after the witness with a vengeance. See the article in the Star Tribune at

Just what is a character witness anyway?

The Rules of Evidence in Minnesota allow either side to offer evidence through many different paths, including a character witness. I’ve never seen the prosecutor use one, but it’s common for defendants to call character witnesses. Most people assume these witnesses will testify to how wonderful the person (defendant) is, but the Rules limit the witness’ testimony to specifics examples of the defendant’s reputation for things like honesty or reliability.

Typically, the witness would begin their testimony by detailing how they know the defendant and for how long. They’re asked eventually, “what is the defendant’s reputation for truthfulness or honesty?”

After the witness testifies, the prosecution has the opportunity to cross-examine which is what happened in the Aaron Biber trial. The prosecutor lashed into the witness by repeatedly asking him if he knew of the sordid details of the crime Mr. Biber had pled guilty to.

This is the common and proper way for the opposing counsel to proceed. For instance, if the character witness has said the defendant is truthful, the prosecutor could ask that in light of the fact the defendant lied initially about his sexual involvement with a child, would that change the opinion of the character witness? In the Biber case, the prosecutor brought up several instances and facts that cast doubt on the character of Mr. Biber.

End result called by yours truly, the “legal referee:” what the prosecutor did was proper and part of their job. Usually, the prosecution doesn’t go to the lengths this one did, but it’s still okay to do so under the court rules.

What do you think about it?

About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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