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When is Hearsay Admissible in a Criminal Case?

In a criminal trial, a judge will not admit hearsay statements as evidence. Hearsay is formally defined as “a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered as evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” For example, a witness could lawfully testify that they saw the defendant assaulting the victim. But if the witness said they merely overheard the defendant tell another person that they assaulted the victim, this would be inadmissible hearsay.

Court of Special Appeals Reverses Assault Conviction

There are multiple exceptions to the general ban on hearsay testimony. Some of these exceptions can actually benefit the person on trial. If a judge improperly excludes such evidence, that can be grounds to reverse a conviction and order a new trial.

A recent decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, Durham v. State, provides a good example. This case involves four men: the owner of a repair business, his two employees, and a fourth man who worked as a subcontractor. The defendant was one of the two employees.

One day in September 2018, the owner learned the subcontractor was planning to start his own repair business. This led to a confrontation between the two men, after which the owner left to attend to a customer. About an hour later, the owner received a call from one of his employees, stating the subcontractor was “on top of” the defendant and “trying to kill him.” The owner told the employee to call 911, which the employee did.

Shortly thereafter, the defendant called the owner. The defendant confirmed he had been attacked by the subcontractor. The owner later said he could hear the subcontractor “shouting very angrily in the background.” Police arrived at the scene of the altercation and found the subcontractor “severely beaten” and having breathing trouble. The defendant had left the scene. His co-workers spoke to the police and eventually, the police decided the defendant had attacked the subcontractor.

The state charged the defendant with first- and second-degree assault. The defendant argued that he had lawfully acted in self-defense. The first two trials ended in mistrials. During the third trial, the judge refused to allow the owner to testify about what he heard during the two phone calls with his employees. The judge found all such statements would be inadmissible hearsay. The jury subsequently convicted the defendant of second-degree assault and the court imposed a seven-year prison sentence.

The Court of Special Appeals reversed the conviction, however, finding that at least some of the owner’s testimony was admissible under exception to the hearsay rule. For instance, when the defendant told the owner on the phone that the subcontractor was beating him, that was an “excited utterance,” which is a valid exception to the hearsay rule. As the appellate court explained, an excited utterance is a statement “relating to a startline event or condition made while the declarant was under the stress of excitement caused by the event or condition.” Making a statement while under attack certainly qualified, the Court of Special Appeals noted. And since the Court could not say whether or not the admission of the owner’s testimony would have “tipped the scales” with the jury, the verdict could not stand.

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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.