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Domestic Violence, Admitting Hearsay, Victim’s Mindset

In a domestic violence case, there are usually several issues that can be important.  One is whether the suspect was using self-defense against the victim and whether such self-defense was reasonable under the circumstances.  A second is whether prior incidents of uncharged domestic violence involving the suspect are admissible.  A third is whether the case can proceed without the victim coming to court to testify.  A fourth is admission of an out-of-court statement or statements by the suspect or victim (hearsay) to show the declarant’s state of mind to show something, i.e., self-defense.

This article will limit its scope to the last issue described above, as there are many published decisions both under California law and U.S. Supreme Court law that anyone facing a domestic violence charge may need to know.

The starting point in this analysis is the fundamental principal that a statement concerning defendant’s state of mind is admissible as an exception to the hearsay rule, which otherwise makes an out-of-court statement offered for its truth inadmissible.
 
California Evidence Code § 1250 states that evidence of a declarant’s then-existing state of mind, emotion or physical sensation is admissible when offered to (1) prove the declarant’s state of mind, emotion or physical sensation at that time or at any other time when it is itself an issue in the action; or (2) prove or explain acts or conduct of the declarant.  Included in this provision are statements showing intent, plan, motive, design, mental feeling, pain or bodily health.  Evidence Code § 1250(a).  Excluded are statements of memory or belief to prove the fact remembered or believed.  Evidence Code § 1250(b). 

Such statements can be inadmissible if made under circumstances that indicate their lack of trustworthiness.  Evidence Code § 1252.  For example, courts have found statements made by defendants during post-arrest interrogation inadmissible under § 1252 when the defendant has a compelling motive to minimize his or her culpability for the offense, thus indicating a lack of trustworthiness.  People v. Jurado (2006) 38 Cal.4th 72, 129-130, 131, 41 Cal.Rptr.3d 319.

The big issue in admitting such an out-of-court statement under this exception is whether the statement is really being offered for the truth of what is said and is thus instead more properly regarded as “testimonial” in nature.  If a judge considers such a statement testimonial in nature, then the Sixth Amendment right to confront and cross-examine the declarant arises unless defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine the declarant.  Crawford v. Washington (2004) 541 U.S. 36, 62, 68, 124 S. Ct. 1354, 158 L. Ed. 2d 177; People v. Price (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 224, 238, 15 Cal. Rptr. 3d 229 (applying Crawford to a statement being offered under Evidence Code § 1370).

It can be argued, however, that statements being offered to show declarant’s state of mind, however, are not testimonial in nature, so the Sixth Amendment and witness availability issues are irrelevant. See People v. Griffin (2004) 33 Cal.4th 536, 579, n 19, 15 Cal. Rptr. 3d 743 , overruled on other grounds in 54 Cal. 4th 758, 824 n 32 (statement made by murder victim to friend that defendant was fondling her and that she would confront him was within Evidence Code § 1250 state-of-mind exception and was not testimonial under Crawford); see also People v. Runnels (9th Cir., 2004) 387 F. 3d 1030, 1042-1044 (applying California law; testimony by defendant who murdered his wife concerning her alleged threats to kill him was not hearsay when offered to show defendant honestly but unreasonably feared imminent death or great bodily injury). 

When a victim’s statement evidencing fear of defendant is introduced under Evidence Code § 1250, the victim’s mental state or conduct must first and foremost be an issue.  People v. Guerra (2006) 37 Cal.4th 1067, 1114, 40 Cal. Rptr. 118.  The victim’s extrajudicial statement must then of course be probative on the issue of the declarant’s state of mind.  Assuming the statement is substantially relevant on this state of mind issue, the probative value of the statement must still outweigh undue prejudice issues under Evidence Code § 352 to be admissible.  People v. Crew (2003) 31 Cal. 4th 822, 840, 3 Cal. Rptr. 3d 733.

We offer this short article to not only explain the state-of-mind Evidence Code provision, but remind the reader that fundamental relevance and undue prejudice principals remain applicable.

For more information about admission of hearsay statements in a domestic violence case and domestic violence in general, please click on the following articles:
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