Civil trial lawyers view criminal convictions like bombs. They damage the direct target, the convicted witness or party, but also cause massive collateral damage to the entire case. The Texas Rules of Evidence seem to enshrine this view by singling out criminal convictions for special treatment and by allowing the use of a conviction to impeach a witness only if the crime was a felony or a crime involving “moral turpitude” and the probative value of the crime outweighs its prejudicial effect.
Jury researchers have subjected the consensus view of the effect of convictions in civil cases to surprisingly little empirical testing. Almost all studies of the prejudicial effect of convictions focus on criminal trials. Most of these studies confirm that previous convictions in criminal trials increase conviction rates, regardless of whether jurors receive any limiting instruction. These studies also confirm that the more similar the previous crime is to the crime for which the defendant is on trial, the more often the defendant is convicted. At least one study shows a “backlash” effect. Admission of a less serious previous crime, such as auto theft, in a trial for a more serious crime, such as murder, can actually reduce the conviction rate.
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