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When Victim’s State of Mind Is and Is Not an Issue?

In the context of domestic violence or other crimes involving a violent crime against a person, defendant may claim the victim disappeared on her or his own accord, that defendant acted in self-defense from the victim, that defendant was provoked by the victim or the victim committed suicide because she or he was suffering from depression. 
In a Nutshell: An out-of-court statement from the victim, showing victim’s state of mind prior to an act of domestic violence, i.e., fearing defendant or planning a divorce, may be admissible to show defendant’s guilt or self-defense, but the surrounding facts must also be analyzed for the statement’s context.
To refute this, the prosecution may seek to introduce a hearsay statement from the victim or a witness to what defendant allegedly said.  The legal basis under which the prosecution does this can be Evidence Code § 1250 to show the victims’ state of mind, i.e., fear of defendant because the victim did something the victim believed would create a violent response from defendant, or fear of defendant because, for example, the victim planned to request a divorce, or fear of defendant because the victim had been having an affair and defendant discovered this.

When the prosecution asks the judge to admit the statement as state of mind evidence, the defense must consider if the statement actually is testimonial in nature or even character evidence.  If the statement is not testimonial in nature and the victim is unavailable to testify in court, the cross-examination requirement to evaluate the declarant’s trustworthiness should be asserted under Evidence Code § 1252.
art_1515_-_airport_courthouse.jpgAirport Courthouse

If the statement is testimonial in nature, the Sixth Amendment right to confront one’s accuser must be asserted under the Sixth Amendment and Crawford v. Washington (2004) 541 U.S. 36, 62, 124 S. Ct. 1354, 158 L. Ed. 2d 177.

However, the victim’s hearsay statement first and foremost must be probative or relevant to the victim’s state of mind.  The probative value of the statement also must still outweigh possible unfair or undue prejudice to defendant.  Evidence Code § 352; People v. Crew (2003) 31 Cal.4th 822, 840, 3 Cal. Rptr. 733.

For example, in Crew, supra, defendant was charged with murder for the disappearance and presumed death of his wife.  The trial court judge admitted testimony of a friend of the victim that the victim told the friend that if she did not hear from her in two weeks, the friend should contact the police.  Defendant presented the theory that the victim had disappeared of her own accord because she was suffering from stress and depression.  The judge admitted the friend’s statement of what the wife told her, reasoning that it was probative on whether the wife’s disappearance was of her own volition and that its evidentiary value was not substantially outweighed by the danger of under prejudice under Evidence Code § 352.

In another first degree murder case, wherein the defense asserted self-defense to his wife’s kicking him, challenging him to fight and insulting him, the judge admitted the wife’s statement to a co-worker three weeks before the killing that she wanted a divorce, but was afraid her husband would harm her because he had threatened to kill her if she left him.  People v. Escobar (2000) 82 Cal.App.4th 1085, 1092.  The judge found the victim’s statement as evidence of her fear of defendant and to refute the defense argument that the wife would have made the bold, insulting comments defendant claimed.  The judge further found the statements trustworthy because the co-worker had approached the wife about this and the co-worker had no reason to lie.

Similarly, in People v. Ortiz (1995) 38 Cal.App.4th 377, 390-394, 44 Cal. Rptr. 2d 914, the trial court properly admitted statements made by the decedent-victim to show her state of mind under Evidence Code § 1250, as she apparently told someone that she was very angry with defendant and that he had tried to rape her in the past.

In contrast, judges have excluded expressions of the victim’s fear of defendant when the victim’s state of mind was not an issue.  For example, in People v. Ireland (1969) 70 Cal.2d 522, 75 Cal. Rptr. 188, in which defendant was being prosecuted for murdering his wife.  The court held inadmissible the victim’s statement to a neighbor that “I know he’s going to kill me.  I wish he would hurry up and get it over with.”  70 Cal. 2d at 528.  What seemed critical to the court’s analysis was evidence that the victim died while reclining on the couch when defendant hit her and thus there was no issue of self-defense, accident or suicide.

For more information about introducing hearsay evidence of a victim’s state of mind under Evidence Code § 1250, please click on the following articles:
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