Criminal Law

Criminal Law Trials - The Hearsay Rule

Courts do their business guided by procedural rules, including ones for criminal trials. A basic rule you may know of is the hearsay rule. Generally, hearsay evidence is inadmissible, or can't be used as proof. An attorney objects when hearsay is offered; the court rules on whether the evidence comes in or not. What is hearsay, exactly?

The Definition of Hearsay

Hearsay is sometimes called "second-hand evidence" or "rumor." Hearsay is a statement offered by a witness without direct knowledge of the statement. Rather, his testimony is based on what others said to him. Hearsay is inadmissible unless an exception applies, allowing its use as proof in court.

Technically, a statement isn't hearsay if it's not used as proof of the subject in question. For example, if a witness on the stand says "the passenger said the light was red" and you're trying to prove the light's color. It's hearsay and inadmissible. But, if the statement is used to show something else, say the passenger wasn't color blind, it's not used to prove whether the statement's subject matter is true. It's not hearsay, and the lawyer would give some other reason for using it in her case.

There are many hearsay types. Hearsay starting with words such as, "He told me" or "I was advised," is easy to spot. Sometimes it's harder. Example: testimony by a police officer on his police report is inadmissible hearsay if it's based on statements others gave him. The people who actually gave the statements are the ones that should testify about what they saw or heard.

Hearsay Rule Purpose 

This rule is important because it's aimed at ensuring only truthful and reliable evidence is heard in court. One reason why hearsay is inadmissible is because the person who said something can't be questioned. Another key reason is the judge or jury doesn't see the speaker or declarant in person, and can't weigh qualities like demeanor.

Hearsay testimony can be very damaging if the jury hears it. The testimony's effect on the jury may be hard to erase, even if the judge rules the testimony is inadmissible and tells the jury to ignore it. It's often important for an attorney to see when a witness might give hearsay testimony, and ask the court to rule on the issue beforehand.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If hearsay is heard by the jury, how is that excluded from the trial?
  • What can be done if the jury hears inadmissible evidence and it hurts my case?
  • What are the exceptions to the hearsay rule?
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