If you’re watching your favorite courtroom drama show, you may hear a lawyer say to a judge, “Objection! Hearsay!” That’s because, most of the time, hearsay evidence is inadmissible at trial. The law considers general hearsay to be lacking the degree of reliability needed for admissible evidence in a court of law. Some hearsay is admissible, though. That’s the hearsay that falls into one of the exceptions carved out by the law. An “excited utterance,” for example, is one of the exceptions in Maryland.
In your criminal trial, the difference between success and defeat may be your ability to win an admissibility argument about one or more pieces of hearsay evidence. To be sure you have the best chance of winning these and other arguments against the prosecution, be sure you have an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney protecting you.
An excited utterance is an immediate statement made in a state of shock or extreme excitement due to a “startling event or condition.” The idea is that the speaker is so stressed that she is speaking spontaneously and sincerely, and her words “may be taken as particularly trustworthy.” A recent case originating in Baltimore shines a light on just how far the boundaries of “excited utterance” do – and do not – go.
In the case, D.M. was on trial for first-degree murder, having allegedly shot a man in the back of the neck. Much of the state’s case against D.M. was weak. The keys to the state’s case were DNA evidence and a trio of anonymous 911 calls.
All three of the calls clearly were hearsay. In the first call, the caller provided the prosecution with vital proof it needed to link D.M. to the crime. The prosecution argued that that call was admissible as an excited utterance. The judge agreed and the contents of that 911 call were included in the evidence against D.M.
Maryland’s highest court reversed that ruling. The court noted that the shooting happened at 5:11 pm (or earlier) and the 911 call occurred at 5:35. That time lapse was important. The law demands that, to be admissible as an excited utterance, a statement must represent “present excitement,” and must occur before the speaker has time for contemplative reflection.
An ‘excited utterance’ requires that the speaker is actually excited
As an example, “Oh my goodness! The man in the red jacket just shot the man in the gray sweatpants!” is an excited utterance. The speaker is describing something that happened just seconds before and is speaking from a place of shock, stress and excitement.
In D.M.’s case, the caller on the 5:35 call was calm and not excited. She related events that had occurred at least 24 minutes before she dialed the phone. The caller emitted “neither a sense of immediacy nor a sense of emotional distress.” In other words, she sounded relatively calm and clearly was narrating events that happened long enough prior to give her time to reflect on the matter. When that is true, the statement does not qualify as an excited utterance. The contents of this 911 shouldn’t have been admitted against D.M. on that basis.
So, what happens if inadmissible hearsay is used against you in your criminal trial? It depends. Sometimes, a judge’s mistake regarding admissibility may be considered to be a “harmless error” if the appellate court concludes that the jury would have convicted even without the disputed evidence. However, in D.M.’s case, the contents of that 911 call were a key cog to the state’s case. That meant that the mistake could not be considered a harmless error. As a result, the call’s actual inadmissibility meant that D.M. was entitled to a new trial and, without something more from the prosecution, to face a body of evidence that did not include the contents of that 911 call.
There are several key things that go into putting on the best possible defense. One of those things is ensuring that you face only those pieces of evidence that are admissible in a court of law under the Maryland rules of evidence. To make sure you have that kind of strong defense, talk to skilled Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi, who has been diligently and effectively representing the accused in Maryland for many years. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.