WASHINGTON, D.C. Perhaps the most frustrating thing for many people observing news accounts of sensational trials, or actually observing the trials themselves, is the knowledge that the jury is not going to hear certain evidence or otherwise be made aware of things that many consider “relevant.”
Remember in 1970 (I know, I’m aging myself) the Charles Manson trial, where he was convicted of eight horrible murders?
President Nixon commented on the trial to Denver newspaper folks and the next day, Manson was able to grab a copy of The Los Angeles Times and flash its front page (“Manson Guilty, Nixon Declares”) to the jury.
The introduction of that fact, that President Nixon thought Manson was guilty, should not have been made known to the jury.
Nixon’s words were the subject of a motion for a mistrial by the prosecutor. No mistrial, but later, of course, a conviction. So what was the harm in the jury seeing what the President thought? Maybe none, but evidentiary rules were designed to eliminate this type of irrelevant “maybe” in the jury deliberation process.
You may know that jurors are not allowed to tweet or receive tweets, and they are often kept secluded from outside world information, because the information they are allowed to consider is limited by the Laws of Evidence.
The Laws of Evidence are the reasons behind this apparent disconnect (perceived “truth” vs. admissible evidence). The Laws of Evidence are a system of rules that govern what a jury can and cannot consider when deciding a case.
Many people question the necessity or wisdom of what is perceived to be a very complicated set of artificial barriers that appear to prevent a jury from hearing all of the facts “relevant” to a case. In fact, the rules frequently exclude testimony or other information that may somehow be related to the litigation.
Experience has taught that some restraints on evidence are necessary however, because to remove them would more often defeat, rather than serve the cause of “truth and justice.”
Have you ever served on a jury? The jury system is actually responsible for the evolution of the rules of evidence. The belief is that jurors, untrained in the law, cannot and should not be exposed to all of the testimony and other “evidence” which the lawyers seek to adduce.
The adversary system, pitting highly trained, “tricky” and technically oriented antagonists (lawyers) against each other subjects jurors to emotion and potential confusion. Imagine a lawyer trying to mislead you… hmmm…
The rules of evidence were designed to prevent lawyers from 1) introducing matters that are not true; 2) introducing misleading matters; 3) introducing evidence which would unduly arouse jurors’ emotions; and 4) introducing evidence which would violate some greater public policy or some matter of greater social importance than the single case at hand.
In a courtroom setting then, evidence, to be admissible, must be both relevant and material. Relevant evidence is anything that tends to establish the proposition for which it is offered. If the evidence has any probative value, however slight, it is relevant. This means that if the offered evidence has any tendency whatsoever to prove or disprove the point for which it was offered, it will be admitted, if, further, it is material.
Suppose we want to prove in an auto collision case that the other party ran a red light. We have now, actually, two things we must prove. First, we must prove the light was red for the other party, and second, we must prove the other party went through the light when it was red.
It is irrelevant to either of the things we are trying to prove that at the time of the collision the other party’s driver’s license was suspended. As juicy as that fact may be, introducing that information to the jury would not address the issues, but likely would position the jury to dislike the other driver (for driving on a suspended license).
If you don’t like someone, aren’t you more apt to decide against him? What if you learned that the other party’s license was suspended because of multiple convictions for drunk driving? Still not relevant, but with that knowledge, a jury would be expected to be even more disposed against that party.
Suppose you could call a witness to the stand in this case who would testify that she was behind you, and that when you entered the intersection, your light was green. This testimonial evidence would be relevant, because it tends to prove that the other driver’s light was red. If the driver who allegedly ran the red light claimed he had a green light, he could bring in evidence that supported that contention. Perhaps he could elicit testimony from a traffic control employee who would say there was a malfunction at that intersection at that time and that both lights were green.
Perhaps he has a witness who was behind him who would testify that his light was green when he entered the intersection.
Admissible evidence also must be “material.” Material evidence tends to prove a matter that is properly at issue in the case.
Suppose the other party can provide evidence that your witness owes you $150,000.00, and that you have sued your witness for the money. These facts, if true, have no relevance to whether the light was red or whether the other party (the convicted drunk driver) went through a red light, but they do tend to show a possible motive for your witness lying about what she saw. The evidence of motive is material to the ultimate issues.
One of the most repeated, and often misunderstood evidentiary rules involves “hearsay.” The concern is trustworthiness and reliability. We are after the truth. Hearsay is a statement made by someone other than the person on the witness stand, being repeated for the purpose of “offering the truth of the matter asserted.” In our case above, if George gets on the witness stand and says that Sally said the light was red when the Defendant went through it, this testimony would be hearsay, because George is testifying about what someone else said, and he is offering Sally’s comments for the purpose of proving “the matter asserted,” that is, that the light was red for the Defendant.
Thus, hearsay is generally not admissible, because it is not reliable. To get Sally’s statement into evidence, Sally must take the witness stand.
Some “hearsay” evidence is allowed. Some exceptions to the general hearsay rule include 1) dying declarations in criminal trials, where, as an example, if Mark knows he is dying and says something about the cause of his impending death, the statement “Bruce shot me” can be used, on the belief that a dying person will not lie; 2) statements against interest can be admitted where someone offering that he stole some money, knowing he is admitting criminal conduct (clearly against his interest); and 3) spontaneous or excited utterances, where Phil wants to tell the jury what he heard Fred saying about Eric’s actions in a movie theater (are you following this?).
Phil may testify that Fred said Eric started the fire if Fred’s statement was in the movie theatre and Fred’s statement was spontaneous (Fred: Eric, what are you doing? Why did you light that fire?).
Next time you are following a trial, appreciate that everything you hear is not necessarily being considered. Reporters and journalists often add much to the trial evidence. You have, potentially, the entire world’s view. Jurors, appropriately, have only what is appropriate.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website. He is also available to speak to your group on numerous legal topics. Paul is the featured legal analyst on the Washington Times Radio, on the Andy Parks show, on Wednesdays at 5:15 P.M., and he is a columnist on the Washington Times Communities.
His book The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You is free to Maryland and Virginia residents and can be obtained by ordering it on his website; others can obtain it on Amazon.
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