What a ‘Statement Against Penal Interest’ is and How it Can Impact Your Criminal Case in Maryland

Chances are pretty high that you’re rarely heard the phrase “statement against penal interest,” if you’ve heard it at all. Chances are also very, very high that your knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney knows exactly what this is and how to use it.

A “statement against penal interest” is one of the exceptions to the general rule of evidence that says hearsay statements are not admissible at trial. That’s a big deal because if you can establish that a statement meets the criteria of this exception, you can use an otherwise inadmissible piece of evidence at trial to strengthen your defense.

An example of this kind of statement might be an ex-girlfriend who testifies, “He told me he killed that old couple.” As you can see from that example, the “statement against penal interest” exception is something that often will be used by the prosecution. Sometimes, though, as a recent case highlights, this kind of statement can be a helpful element of an accused person’s defense.

The accused, R.G., was on trial for murder. According to the prosecution, four men (including R.G. and men named R.G., J.O.C.-Y. and E.G.-G.) carried out a plot to execute a Montgomery County teen and his friend as revenge for one teen’s purportedly having stolen marijuana and slightly injured J.O.C.-Y.’s wife in a drug deal gone awry.

One of the key prosecution witnesses in the trial was L.D., who was (at the time of the shootings) E.G.-G.’s girlfriend. L.D. testified that E.G.-G. told her that he, J.O.C.-Y. and R.G. each shot the teens after they took and broke one teen’s cell phone.

R.G.’s attorney wanted to use L.D.’s statement as part of his defense. The defense contention was that E.G.-G.’s statement to L.D. implicating himself, J.O.C.-Y. and R.G. in the murders but mentioning nothing about R.G. was proof that R.G. wasn’t involved.

The Court of Special Appeals’ ruling in favor of the accused tells us several things. One, it tells us that prosecutors aren’t the only ones who can use the statement against penal interest exception. The defense can use a statement against penal interest that implicates co-defendants (but not the defendant) if the statement meets the criteria required by the law.

The importance of qualities that show ‘trustworthiness’

In order to use a statement like this, the statement must-have several qualities. One of the more important things that a valid statement against penal interest must have is something the law calls “indicia of trustworthiness.” These are things about the statement that raises the probability that the speaker was speaking truthfully.

L.D.’s statement had those. In L.D.’s statement, E.G.-G.’s clearly implicated himself in the murders and did not try to shift the blame away from himself onto J.O.C.-Y. or R.G. or others. That is something that the law says makes a statement more trustworthy.

Another potential indicator of reliability and trustworthiness is timing. The closer the hearsay statement was to the alleged crime, the more trustworthy and reliable the law considers the statement to be. In R.G.’s case, E.G.-G. made his comment to L.D. about the murders the day after the shootings took place. That close proximity in terms of time creates a lot of weight in favor of trustworthiness and admissibility.

Even if the trial judge has some concerns about the credibility of the person testifying about what was said, that doesn’t prevent you from using the statement as part of your defense. In ruling on R.G.’s case, the Court of Special Appeals was very clear that the credibility of the witness who relates an out-of-court hearsay statement is something for the jury to consider in its deliberations, not for the judge to decide in a challenge to admissibility.

Proof that strengthens your criminal defense may come from wide and varied sources and sometimes may come from very unexpected places. To ensure you have the best defense possible, you need a legal team that knows how to find all of those pieces of evidence and use them for maximum effectiveness. Look to the experienced Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC to be that sort of powerful representative for you. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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