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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Double Coverage: Supreme Court Of Iowa Finds Dying Declaration And Excited Utterance Exceptions Both Applied In Murder Appeal

The recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Iowa in State v. Harper, 2009 WL 277087 (Iowa 2009), provides a nice (but disturbing) illustration of something that I teach my Evidence students: Statements falling under the dying declaration exception to the rule against hearsay also often fall under the excited utterance exception (and also the less useful medical treatment/diagnosis exception).

In Harper, the fire department arrived at Holly Michael's home and found her in the basement, laying face down, hands and feet bound, and wrapped in a burning comforter. Her hands and arms were severely burned, and the fingers on her left hand were charred off. In the ambulance, en route to the hospital, Michael insisted that she wanted to die.

At the emergency room, a hospital staff member heard Michael say "I think I'm going to die." An x-ray technician also heard Michael say, "please don't kill me" and "Harper did it, Harper did it." Furthermore,

One of the treating physicians initially thought Michael was dead based on the severity of her burns. After he discovered she was alive and conscious, he asked her what had happened. She said that Sessions Harper had raped her, tied her, and set her house on fire. The doctor asked her to repeat what she had said, and Michael again said that Sessions Harper had raped her, tied her, and set her house on fire. Another physician treating Michael also heard what she had said. Based upon Michael's statements, a doctor performed a rape kit examination. Another attending physician treating Michael asked her who had done this, and Michael replied "Sessions Harper. He tied me up, raped me, and left me in the basement."

Eighteen days after the incident, Michael died from complications from the burns and inhalation injuries. Harper was thereafter arrested and charged with first-degree sexual abuse, kidnapping, murder, and arson. After he was found guilty on all charges based in large part on the testimony of the above medical service providers, Harper appealed, claiming, inter alia, that Michael's statements were inadmissible hearsay and/or admitted in violation of his rights under the Confrontation Clause.

The Supreme Court of Iowa disagreed, finding that Michael's statements were admissible under both the dying declaration and the excited utterance exceptions to the rule against hearsay. Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.804(a)(2), the dying declaration exception, provides an exception to rule against hearsay for:

A statement made by a declarant while believing that the declarant’s death was imminent, concerning the cause or circumstances of what the declarant believed to be the declarant’s impending death.

The court correctly found that this exception applied because Michael indicated that she thought she was going to die (indeed, one doctor even thought that she was dead), and her statements clearly concerned the cause of what she believed to be her imminent death.

Meanwhile, Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.803(2), the excited utterance exception, provides an exception to the rule against hearsay for:

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.

Again, the court correctly found that this exception applied because Michael made her statements soon after she was rescued, and she made her statements while still under the stress of excitement caused by the startling event of her burning. The court also properly found that the fact that some of Michael's statements were made in response to questions was not fatal because "the fact that a statement was prompted by a question does not automatically disqualify it as an excited utterance."

The Supreme Court of Iowa also indicated that Michael's statements could have been admissible under Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.803(4), which provides an exception to the rule against hearsay for:

Statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment and describing medical history, or past or present symptoms, pain, or sensations, or the inception or general character of the cause or external source thereof insofar as reasonably pertinent to diagnosis or treatment.

But because it had already found that the other two exceptions applied, it did not need to resolve this issue. Even if this exception would have applied (and I think it would have), it wouldn't have been very useful because generally the medical treatment/diagnosis exception has been read so as not to allow statements concerning the identity of the perpetrator to be admissible

(Finally, the court concluded that Michael's statements were not "testimonial," meaning that there was no Confrontation Clause problem).

-CM

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