For anyone even vaguely familiar with the criminal trial process, the word “hearsay” will seem familiar. It is one of the most important and frequently cited rules in a criminal trial, as it involves statements that can be incriminating or prejudicial to a defendant. The definition of hearsay under Florida’s Evidence Code is an out-of-court statement being offered for the truth of the matter asserted.
Another way to describe hearsay is as a statement by someone to a witness – at some other time – who then repeats the statement in court. This doesn’t apply to every single statement repeated in court, however – only statements offered for the truth of their words. For example, if a testifying witness says “Mr. Smith said the defendant, Mr. Johnson, robbed the bank that morning”, this would be a hearsay statement being offered to prove that Mr. Johnson robbed the bank. However, if the witness says “Mr. Smith said it was a cold and rainy day that day”, that is not an objectionable hearsay statement unless the weather was somehow an issue in the case.
In general, hearsay evidence is inadmissible at trial. The overall purpose is to fine-tune the trial and only admit reliable, trustworthy evidence in favor of either side. Hearsay statements are unreliable by their very nature – most people tend to mistake or misremember certain things after a period of time. Often, a trial doesn’t even happen until several months after an alleged incident took place. When a defendant’s liberty is at stake, you can’t have the outcome turn on some vaguely-remembered statement that a witness heard.
Another reason for the hearsay rule is connected to the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause. This clause provides that a defendant has a Constitutional right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” This means that the defendant gets the ability to cross-examine somebody that is trying to offer incriminating evidence. In Colonial times before the Revolution, American subjects prosecuted by the English Crown were frequently arrested, jailed, and sentenced without the opportunity for a full and fair trial – based on statements we would now call hearsay. For many years, then, the hearsay rule has served a critical function to ensure fair trials for U.S. defendants.
Exceptions to the Hearsay Rule in a Criminal Trial
There are, of course, some notable exceptions to the hearsay rule, depending on the type of statement or evidence being offered.
- Present Sense Impression. This includes statements describing an event or condition, made while or immediately after the declarant perceived it.
- Excited Utterance. Statements concerning a startling event or condition, made in response to the excitement or stress the declarant was experiencing.
- Dying Declaration. “Deathbed confessions”, for example, or other statements made by a declarant when they are at the end of their life. (The basis for allowing these is that the declarant is obviously unavailable to testify at trial, and they were unlikely to make up facts when they know they have nothing left to lose.)
- Admissions Against Interests. If a statement incriminates the declarant as well as the defendant, it can be presumed they would not be making up information. A statement that “we both robbed the bank together” could fall under this exception, for example.
- Prior Inconsistent Statements. A statement previously made by a witness that contradicts their trial testimony could come in through this exception.
There are a number of other potential exceptions, meanwhile, that could potentially allow hearsay statements at trial.
When Your Criminal Defense Lawyer Should Object to a Hearsay Statement
A skilled and experienced Tampa criminal defense attorney knows the hearsay rules inside and out, whether the trial is at the Federal or State level. A defense attorney should object whenever the prosecution attempts to introduce an out-of-court statement that could threaten a defendant’s case.
The defense attorney at trial should also be on the lookout for the prosecution’s attempts to offer statements that are incriminating or prejudicial to a defendant. Sometimes, a statement may be offered simply to influence the jury and appeal to their emotions. Unless the statement is relevant and falls within a legitimate hearsay exception, it should not be admitted at trial.
The Tampa Criminal Defense Attorneys at Trombley & Hanes Know the Rules of Hearsay Evidence and How to Protect You at Trial
Our Tampa criminal lawyers at Trombley & Hanes have decades of experience defending criminal cases involving Florida and Federal law. We understand the rules of evidence – especially those involving hearsay. If you have been charged with a criminal offense and face trial, keeping out prejudicial hearsay statements can sometimes mean the difference between freedom and jail. If you have any questions regarding your case and the criminal justice process, don’t hesitate to call our office at 813-229-7918, or visit our firm online today.