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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, December 14, 2007

A Complete 180: Supreme Court of Delaware Reverses Prior Precedent on Rule 803(3)

The Supreme Court of Delaware has affirmed the convictions of Michael Jones, who had been convicted of the murders of Cedric Reinford and Maneeka Plant, the granddaughter of Democratic state Rep. Hazel Plant.  At trial, the prosecution alleged that Jones and Darrel Page were members of a drug ring led by Reinford.  The prosecution contended that Jones and Plant entered into a conspiracy to kill Reinford and steal drug money from him.  Allegedly, on the evening of November 20, 1999, Jones shot Reinford three times in the head in his car, Page and Jones doused Reinford and his car with gasoline and set them on fire, the pair proceeded to Reinford's house to steal the drug money, and while there, Jones shot and killed Plant, Reinford's fiancee.

Jones raised several issues on appeal to the state supreme court, but the only one that I will address is the issue of whether the trial court judge improperly allowed Kim Still, Page's girlfriend, to testify as to what Page told her in the weeks leading up to the homicide, including his intent to enlist Jones to commit murder.  The trial court found this statement to be admissible pursuant to Delaware Rule of Evidence 803(3), which indicates that "[a] statement of the declarant's then existing state of mind" is admissible as an exception to the rule against hearsay.  Thus, a husband's statement to his wife that he was about to go to the grocery store would be admissible to prove that the husband in fact planned to go to the grocery store.  In the same way, Page's statements that he planned to have Reinford killed would be admissible to prove that Page in fact planned to have Reinford killed. 

As I have noted before, however, there is a circuit split as to whether the state of mind exception allows for the admission of statements that reflect on not only the state of mind of the speaker, but which also speak to the alleged future acts of some other person.  I fall into the camp excluding statements that speak to the alleged future acts of some other person, and this position is supported by the Report of House Committee on the Judiciary in passing Rule 803(3), which made clear that the Rule was only intended to allow for the admission of statements to prove the conduct of the declarant, not to prove the future conduct of another person.  Applying this analysis, the portion of Page's statement where he said that he planned to enlist Jones would be inadmissible as speaking to the future acts of Jones.   

Indeed, this appeared to be the analysis taken by Delware courts before the Michael Jones case.  In State v. McDonald, 598 A.2d 1134, 1140 (Del.Super. 1991), the Suprerior Court of Delaware cited to the Report of House Committee on the Judiciary and found that while the portion of a victim's statement referring to her present purpose or intent was admissible to prove, by inference, her future conduct, the portion of her statement speaking to the alleged future acts of the defendant was "not admissible to show, inferentially, the intent or future conduct of the defendant." 

More importantly, in Capano v. State, 781 A.2d 556, 608 (Del.Supr. 2001), the Surpeme Court of Delaware cited to the opinion of the United States Supreme Court in Shepard v. United States, 290 U.S. 96 (1933), where the Court found a statement did not meet the state of mind exception to the rule against hearsay because the statement "faced backward and not forward....What is even more important, it spoke to a past act, and more than that, to an act by some one not the speaker."  The Surpeme Court of Delaware then used this analysis to exclude statements allegedly made by  a victim under the state of mind exception because they spoke to past acts and because they spoke to acts by the defendant. Capano, 781 A.2d at 611.

In contrast, the Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed the trial court's ruling in the Michael Jones case allowing Still to testify that Page told her that he planned to enlist Jones.  Strangely, the Court did not mention its prior ruling or the split among courts as to whether the state of mind exception allows for the admission of statements that reflect on not only the state of mind of the speaker, but which also speak to the alleged future acts of some other person.  This makes the decision faulty in both process and, in my mind, outcome.

-CM

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