If you’ve ever been present at a court trial or have seen court dramas on TV, you’ve likely heard the terms “hearsay” or “hearsay evidence.“ But what exactly does the term mean, when is it used, and what exceptions exist to the hearsay rule?
What is “Hearsay Evidence”?
When a witness testifies in court, they are instructed to limit their statements and responses to direct personal experience. This is because of something called ‘the hearsay rule,” which prohibits witnesses from reporting (in word or document) any statement made by persons outside the court to bolster the truthfulness of their testimony.
For witness testimony to be valid, U.S. courts require that:
- Witnesses must testify under oath
- Witnesses must be available for cross-examination
- Witnesses must be present in court so the judge, jury, or magistrate may assess their demeanor and credibility
Usually, statements made by persons outside the court do not meet these 3 criteria, and therefore cannot be regarded by the court as “fact,” nor can they be used to bolster a defendant’s case.
Why Courts Exclude Hearsay Evidence
The ultimate aim of court testimony and a trial is to divulge the truth. Human perceptions, recollections, and retellings, however, are subject to a great many inaccuracies and they create different types of risks that could prevent learning the truth. Not only may a witness be intentionally dishonest when making statements to the court (sincerity risk), they could simply be wrong about their account of events. The hearsay rule is aimed at eliminating situations in which:
- A witness may have misunderstood a situation (narration risk)
- A witness may be remembering incorrectly (memory risk)
- A witness misperceived the situation (perception risk)
Exceptions to the Hearsay Rule
Courts recognize certain exceptions to the hearsay rule as a means of revealing crucial evidence relevant at trial. Such exceptions include:
- Statements against interest. U.S, law protects witnesses against self-incrimination. A “statement against interest” therefore is any statement that places a witness in a weaker position than if they’d never made the statement may be an exception.
- Matters of record. Some out-of-court statements can be corroborated by physical documentation, such as business or governmental records. Such records may be introduced as evidence to support one’s defense, provided that a qualified witness can explain their relevance to the court.
- Excited utterance. Excited or impulsive statements made in the heat of the moment are sometimes allowed as evidence—even if the person who made the statement is not available for cross-examination—provided that such statements relate to an event so overwhelming that it discounts the risk for dishonesty.
- Deathbed declarations. Some dying utterances are admissible in court, as the person who made the statements physically cannot be present to corroborate them. Such determinations are made at the judge’s discretion.
- Prior testimony. Prior statements made under oath by a third party during court testimony can sometimes be used as evidence by a defendant.
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