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What Happens When a Judge Allows Inadmissible Hearsay in a Criminal Trial?

In any criminal trial, the defendant has the right to confront (cross-examine) the witnesses against them. One way that courts protect this right is by excluding the admission of any hearsay testimony. Hearsay refers to any out-of-court statement meant to prove the truth of the matter asserted.

For example, if a witness testified in court that they saw the defendant commit a robbery, the defense has an opportunity to cross-examine and challenge that testimony. But suppose the witness was not present. Instead, a police officer testified that the witness told them they saw the defendant commit the robbery. That would be hearsay, as the witness made an out-of-court statement to the police officer that is not subject to cross-examination in court.

Court of Special Appeals Throws Out Robbery Conviction, Orders New Trial

When a judge improperly allows inadmissible hearsay into evidence, it can taint the jury’s verdict. In some cases, an appellate court may even overturn a conviction if it concludes the hearsay prejudiced the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

This happened just recently here in Maryland. In Little v. State, the Court of Special Appeals ordered a new trial in a robbery case after the trial judge allowed a police officer to offer inadmissible hearsay statements.

This particular case involved a robbery that occurred in 2016. A man pointed a gun at the victim and ordered him to hand over his wallet and some packages that he was carrying. The victim never identified the robber but offered a general description–a Black male in his early 20s–to the police. A witness told police they saw the robber “run into the rear of the house that had picnic tables in the back.”

A detective identified a nearby house meeting that description. He went to the door and spoke with a female occupant of the house, who was the mother of the defendant. At trial, the detective testified that the mother “said her son was the only grown male in the house.” The police subsequently arrested the defendant and charged him with armed robbery.

The defense objected to the detective’s statements as inadmissible hearsay. (The mother herself did not testify at trial.) The prosecution argued the statements were admissible to the extent it explained why the police decided to seek a search warrant for the house. The judge overruled the defendant’s objections. The jury ultimately found the defendant guilty of a number of criminal charges and the judge imposed a prison sentence of 23 years.

But as previously noted, the Court of Special Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. It said the trial court “abused its discretion” in allowing the detective to testify as to what the defendant’s mother allegedly told him. Even if there was a plausible non-hearsay reason for allowing such testimony–the state’s claim it explained the detective’s subsequent actions–there was still a “great likelihood” that the jury misused the statement as proof of the defendant’s guilt.

Contact La Plata Criminal Defense Lawyer Robert Castro Today

This article has been provided by the Law Office of Robert Castro. For more information or questions contact our office to speak to an experienced lawyer at (301) 705-5137.