Monday, October 15, 2007
In State v. Muttart, the Supreme Court of Ohio reversed a decision by an Ohio appellate court excluding certain statements made by a child to health care professionals on the ground that the trial court failed to hold a competency hearing to determine whether the child was competent at the time the statement was made. Dennis Muttart had been convicted by the trial court of raping his 5 year-old daughter, and the sole evidence inculpating him were his daughter's statements to health care professionals in which she discussed the alleged rape.
Dennis Muttart then appealed to an Ohio appellate court, claiming that, with the exception of excited utterances, statements offered under exceptions to the rule against hearsay can only be admitted if it is determined that the person making the statement was competent at the time the statement was made. Because Ohio law presumes that a child under age 10 is not competent to testify at trial unless the court has established his/her competence through a hearing, and because no such competency hearing was held, the appellate court found the statements inadmissible and revesed.
The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed, noting that the case relied upon by Muttart and the appellate court, State v. Said, merely found that when a party seeks to introduce statements pursuant to Ohio Rule of Evidence 807 (similar to the federal residual or catch-all exception), a competency hearing must be held. The Court then noted that the evidence at issue was introduced pursuant to the rule holding admissible hearsay statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment. Compare Federal Rule of Evidence 803(4).
The Court then noted that the drafters of Ohio Rule of Evidence 807 acknowledged that statements admitted pursuant to Rule 807 are less reliable than statements admitted pursuant to Rule 803. The Court then concluded that a competency hearing is not required when statements are admitted pursuant to Rule 803(4) because there are two protections ensuring the reliability of statements made pursuant to 803(4).
The first is the selfish-motive doctrine. In other words, a person seeking medical treatment is unlikely to lie to a medical professional and risk a misdiagnosis or mistreatment. The second is the professional reliance factor. Under this factor, the ability of members of the medical profession to evaluate the accuracy of statements made to them is considered sufficient protection against contrived symptoms.
I'm not quite sure that the Ohio Supreme Court drew a sensical line between Rule 807 and Rule 803(4) when the statement at issue is made by a young child. For instance, while it is clear that an adult would be wary of lying to a medical professional based upon the risk of mistreatment/misdiagnosis, I don't think that it's nearly as clear that a 5 year-old child would understand the dangers of lying to a health care provider. That said, it appears that the Ohio appellate court made the more egregious error by applying an anlalysis performed under Rule 807 to Rule 803 without explaining the difference between the Rules.