The credibility of any witness's testimony depends upon three factors: (1) whether the witness accurately perceived what he or she described; (2) whether the witness retained an accurate memory of that perception; and (3) whether the witness's narration accurately conveys that perception. In order to be allowed to testify, the witness generally must take an oath, must be personally present at the trial, and must be subjected to cross-examination. These conditions promote the factors that lend themselves to the witness's credibility. The rule against HEARSAY further bolsters the oath, personal presence, and cross-examination requirements.
Hearsay is a statement, made out of court, offered in court to prove the truth of the matter asserted. The statement may be oral or written, or it may be nonverbal conduct intended as an assertion, such as pointing to a crime suspect in a police line-up. The act of pointing in response to a request for identification is the same as stating, "He did it." Not all nonverbal conduct is intended as an assertion, of course. For example, a person usually opens an umbrella to stay dry, not to make the assertion, "It is raining."
Sometimes, statements made out of court are not hearsay because they are not offered for the purpose of proving the truth of the matter asserted. For example, suppose that a man who
claims that a collision between his car and a truck rendered him unconscious files a lawsuit against the truck driver for NEGLIGENCE. The truck driver wishes to introduce as evidence a statement that the man made seconds after the accident: "I knew I should have gotten my brakes fixed; they haven't been working for weeks!" If the purpose of offering the statement is only to prove that the man was conscious and talking following the accident, the statement is not hearsay. However, if the statement is offered to prove that the man's brakes were not working and therefore that he caused the accident, then the statement is offered for its truth, and it is hearsay.
The Federal Rules of Evidence state generally that hearsay is not admissible evidence. The reason is that it is impractical, and in most cases simply impossible, to cross-examine the declarant of an out-of-court statement, or to have the declarant take an oath prior to making the statement. Thus, the credibility of an out-of-court statement cannot be easily ascertained. But the hearsay doctrine is extremely complex. Under the federal rules, for example, most admissions of guilt are not considered hearsay and are therefore admissible, even though they might be stated out of court and then offered as evidence. The federal rules list more than 25 exceptions to the general hearsay prohibition. These exceptions apply to circumstances believed to produce trustworthy assertions.
Some exceptions to the hearsay rule require that the person who made the statement be unavailable to testify at trial. One example of this is when a person who is mortally wounded makes a statement about the cause of her death, just before dying. Under this hearsay exception, the victim's statement assigning guilt or causation is made admissible because the victim is not available to testify at trial, and the need for the information is given greater weight than the fear that she lied. Some have argued that the DYING DECLARATION exception exists at least in part because of the belief that persons would not waste their last breaths to utter a falsehood. One federal court commented, "More realistically, the dying declaration is admitted because of compelling need for the statement, rather than any inherent trustworthiness" (United States v. Thevis, 84 F.R.D. 57 [N.D. Ga. 1979]). This exception proved noteworthy in the October 1995 trial and ultimate conviction of Yolanda Saldivar, who was accused of gunning down tejana singing star Selena Quintanilla Perez in a Corpus Christi, Texas, motel. Motel employees testified that Selena's last words before collapsing and dying were, "Lock the door! She'll shoot me again!" and "Yolanda Saldivar in Room 158." Saldivar received a sentence of life in prison following her conviction of murdering the 23-year-old recording artist.
Under some circumstances, the availability of the declarant to testify is immaterial. For example, the excited-utterance exception to the hearsay rule allows the admission of an out-of-court statement "relating to a startling event or condition made while the declarant was under the stress of excitement caused by the event or condition" (Fed. R. Evid.803(2)). The premise for this exception is that excitement caused by the event or condition leaves a declarant without sufficient time or capacity for reflection to fabricate, thus the statement is considered truthful. An example of an admissible excited utterance is the statement, "Look out! That green truck is running a red light and is headed toward that school bus!" Other examples of hearsay exceptions include statements of medical diagnosis, birth and marriage certificates, business records, and statements regarding a person's character or reputation.
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