gavel in a skyscrapper

In a move that is procedurally rare, the presiding Bexar County judge in San Antonio resident Terrence Harper’s trial allowed evidence in of past crimes, a ruling which the Federal Rules of Evidence usually prohibits. While on trial for severely injuring his infant son, the judge allowed evidence of Harper’s capital murder charge, for which he is awaiting trial, to be considered. Typically, evidence of prior crimes is not permitted until the sentencing phase of trial.

Terrence Harper was Sentenced to 99 Years in Prison for Brutally Injuring His Infant Son in 2018, Leaving Him with Lifelong Disabilities

Terrence Harper received the maximum sentence in December of 2022 for beating his son, Trace, who was 4 months old at the time. His son suffered severe injuries to his skull and brain, which caused a stroke which left the left side of his body paralyzed. The tragic attack also left Trace blind and with cerebral palsy secondary to a traumatic brain injury. The infant also suffered rib fractures. These injuries have left Trace with irreversible disabilities that will affect him for the rest of his life.

Because of these facts, San Antonio police have re-opened a 2012 case where an infant died in Harper’s care. The incident was ruled as an accident at the time, but now Harper faces charges for capital murder as a result of the infant’s death. The infant in that case was struck with an object, shook, and was thrown against a wall and a floor. Trace’s mother states she was unaware of this incident prior to her son’s attack.

What is Rule 404(b) and Why Did the Judge Allow This Evidence into Trial?

Rule 404(b) of the Federal Rule of Evidence prohibits courts from admitting evidence of a defendant’s prior crimes or wrongs with limited exceptions. This kind of evidence cannot be admitted when it serves to “prove a person’s character”, and show that the person “acted in accordance with that character”. This rule protects defendants from having assumptions made about their overall character based on one prior bad act. 

This kind of evidence is only permitted when it is used to show motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of a mistake, or lack of accident. While that seems like a broad exception, allowing evidence of this sort to be heard at trial is exceptionally rare. In Harper’s case, 186th District Court Judge Jefferson Moore allowed evidence of the defendant’s prior bad acts to be heard.

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