Tenn. R. Evid. 405
Advisory Commission Comments.
This rule changes Tennessee law, which does not permit character to be proved by personal opinion.
Cross-examination of character witnesses for the accused raises a delicate problem. The examining lawyer can ask the witness about rumored arrests and charges concerning the defendant, because the witness's knowledge of the rumors might impeach the witness in the eyes of the jurors. If the witness admits having heard unfavorable rumors, the jury may decide that the witness's reputation or opinion testimony is entitled to little weight. If the witness has not heard the rumors, the witness's testimony may likewise be taken with a grain of salt because the witness is unfamiliar with the accused or the accused's community.
The indirect effect of such a cross-examination may be the more damaging to the accused. While the jury will be instructed to consider the rumors only as affecting the character witness's credibility, the practical danger is that such rumors - even if untrue - place the defendant's character in a bad light with the jurors. In an effort to alleviate the problem, the proposed rule sets out detailed procedural safeguards. The cross-examiner must apply to the court for permission to inquire into specific instances of conduct, the jury must be excused, and the court must determine both that a factual basis exists and that probative value for impeachment outweighs prejudicial effect on the accused's character.
Part (b) allows substantive proof of specific acts where the character is an element of a cause of action or a defense. For instance, the defendant who called a defamed plaintiff a "crook" can prove the plaintiff embezzled funds.