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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Saturday, January 5, 2008

As I Lay Dying: Supreme Court Of Michigan Finds Children Can Have The Awareness Of Impending Death Necessary For Dying Declarations

In People v. Stamper, 2007 WL 4553540 (Mich. 2007), the Supreme Court of Michigan recently addressed an issue I had never seen raised before:  can a young child have an awareness of impending death so as to satisfy the requirements of the dying declaration exception to the rule against hearsay?  On September 8, 2004, Stamper gave his girlfriend's four year-old son a bath.  The girlfriend heard her son crying during the bath.  According to the girlfriend, after the bath, her son passed out, and Stamper put him in the bathtub to revive him.  Later, the son lay down on a bed with the girlfriend, who asked him to open his eyes; he responded, "Mom, I can't. I'm dead."  Stamper's daughter, who was also present, indicated that the girlfriend's son similarly told her, "don't bother me, I'm already dead."  Eventually, the girlfriend called her father, who arrived and called 911.

The child was thereafter admitted to the hospital with bruises on his neck, arms, chest, abdomen, groin, testicles, and legs.  When one nurse asked him how he got his bruises, he responded, "from 'Mike.'"  Another nurse then asked who Mike was, and the child responded, "Mom's wife."  Soon thereafter, the child died.  Over the defendant's hearsay objections, the trial court allowed testimony about the child's statements on the ground that they constituted dying declarations, resulting in the defendant being convicted.

Pursuant to Michigan Rule of Evidence 804(b)(2), if the declarant is unavailable, his statements are admissible in a prosecution for homicide or in a civil action or proceeding if they were made while the declarant believed that his death was imminent and if they concerned the cause or circumstances of what the declarant believed to be his impending death.  Clearly, in Stamper's case, the child was dead and thus unavailable, Stamper was being prosecuted for homicide, and the child's statements concerned the cause of his death.  Stamper, however, claimed that a four year-old child lacks the capacity to be aware of his impending death.

The Supreme Court of Michigan upheld Stamper's convictions, rejecting the contention that a child's age should per se preclude the admission of his statements as dying declarations.  Instead, the Court found that the issue of whether a child was aware of his impending death when making statements must be determined on a case-by-case basis.  The Court then found that the child's statements that he was "dead" and "already dead" showed that he was aware of his impending death, making his statements admissible as dying declarations.

I agree with the Court's ruling and think that it is consistent with prior decisions, including Michigan decisions, dealing with the admissibility of children's statements offered pursuant to the medical treatment/diagnosis to the exception to the rule against hearsay.  Pursuant to this exception, statements made for purposes of medical treatment or diagnosis are admissible in part because theorists believe that people would not lie in such circumstances because of the potentially dire consequences of mistreatment of misdiagnosis. 

In many cases, defendants argued that this exception didn't apply when the declarant was a child because children don't understand the consequences of lying to doctors or nurses, but the Supreme Court of Michigan went with the general trend in People v. Moeeboer, 484 N.W.2d 621, 627 (Mich. 1992), by finding that children's statements to medical services providers can be admissible under the exception as long as their statements are found to be reliable when looking at the totality of the circumstances.  The same analysis should apply to dying declarations, which is exactly what the Court did in Stamper's case.

Indeed, it seems clear that although the issue apparently wasn't raised in Stamper's case, the child's statements could have been admissible pursuant to the medical treatment/diagnosis exception contained in Michigan Rule of Evidence 803(4).  Typically, the problem with this exception would be that while it allows for the admission of statements about the general source of the declarant's injuries (such as being punched), it does not allow for the admission of statements about the identity of the person causing the injuries (such as Stamper).  Consistent with other courts, however, the Supreme Court of Michigan in Moeeboer found that statements about identity can be admissible when, inter alia, the declarant is a child who might be returned to the custody of his alleged assailant.

-CM 

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