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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I'm So Excited: Supreme Court Of Rhode Island Finds Statements Constitute Excited Utterances Despite Declarant Having Calmed Down

In State v. Graham, 2008 WL 516562 (R.I. 2008), the Supreme Court of Rhode Island upheld both the conviction and sentence of life in prison without parole for Roger Graham, the man police claimed gunned down a Portsmouth motel manager in a murder for hire killing on New Year's Day, 2002.  The prosecution's theory of the case was that Graham was the gunman hired by Tajendra "T.J." Patel to shoot T.J.'s brother-in-law Sanjeev Patel.  T.J. allegedly hired Graham to kill Sanjeev because he blamed Sanjeev for breaking up his marriage with his estranged spouse, Komal.

Part of the testimony used to convict Graham came from Sanjeev's wife Prena.  According to Prena, on the night in question, Sanjeev left their apartment to wait on a customer in the attached Founder's Brook Motel office.  Prena then heard several rings from the sensory bell in the office, which signaled customers entering and exiting, and she heard raised voices and something crashing to the floor.  When she went to see what happened, Prena saw an African-American man (Graham is African-American) in a black jacket carrying a gun in his gloved hand, walking toward the exit.  Prena then crouched over her mortally wounded husband and directed her sister to call 911 and tell the dispatcher that "some black guy shot my husband."

At trial, the prosecution sought to corroborate this testimony through the testimony of Officer Scott Travers, one of the first responders to the 911 call.  According to Travers, when he first arrived, Patel was "very upset, her eyes were very wide open, she was in a very excited state."  He also indicated that her torso, hands, and face were covered in blood.  Travers then testified that she finally "calm[ed] down after a period of time."  The prosecutor then asked, "Was she able to provide you with any information, what did she tell you?"  Defense counsel objected that an answer would constitute hearsay, but the prosecution claimed that Prena's answer would be admissible as an excited utterance, and the trial judge overruled the objection.  Officer Travers subsequently testified that he asked Prena who shot her husband and that she responded that the shooter was a black man wearing a black jacket.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island found that the trial court did not err in permitting this testimony because Prena's statement to Officer Travers constituted an excited utterance.  According to the court, her statement was thus admissible through the testimony of Travers, pursuant to Rhode Island Rule of Evidence 803(2), which states that “[a] statement relating to a startling event or condition made while the declarant was under the stress of excitement caused by the event or condition” is an exception to the rule prohibiting the admission of hearsay.  The court acknowledged that Prena had apparently "calm[ed] down" before giving her statement to Officer Travers, but it concluded that she was still under the stress of the shooting because she "still was covered in her husband's blood and she made her statements to Officer Travers shortly after she found her husband's wounded body."

This ruling appears to be consistent with prior Rhode Island precedent.  In State v. Oisamaiye, 740 A.2d 338 (R.I. 1999), the defendant was charged with elder abuse, and part of the evidence used to convict him consisted of testimony about statements made by an elderly man accusing the defendant of abuse.  The Supreme Court of Rhode Island found that even though the elderly man had calmed down before making the statements, they were admissible as excited utterances because, inter alia, he had red marks on his wrists and an apparent injury to his elbow when he made the statements. See State v. Wright, 817 A.2d 600, 607 (R.I. 2003) (construing State v. Oisamaiye as a case holding that, although the time between nursing-home patient's injuries and the statements he made after he calmed down were unknown, his statements explaining what happened were admissible under the excited-utterance exception because he was still “laboring under the stress of a startling event").       

-CM

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