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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Speaking Ill Of The Dead: Supreme Court Of Minnesota Dodges Question Of Whether Dying Declaration Declarants Can Be Impeached Through Prior Convictions

Like its federal counterpartMinnesota Rule of Evidence 806 provides that

When a hearsay statement, or a statement defined in Rule 801(d)(2)(C), (D), or (E), has been admitted in evidence, the credibility of the declarant may be attacked, and if attacked may be supported, by any evidence which would be admissible for those purposes if declarant had testified as a witness.  Evidence of a statement or conduct by the declarant at any time, inconsistent with the declarant’s hearsay statement, is not subject to any requirement that the declarant may have been afforded an opportunity to deny or explain.  If the party against whom a hearsay statement has been admitted calls the declarant as a witness, the party is entitled to examine the declarant on the statement as if under cross-examination.

The clear language of this rule makes the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Minnesota in State v. Hall, 2009 WL 1228555 (Minn. 2009), confusing.

In Hall, Michael Joseph Hall, Jr., was found guilty of first-degree premeditated murder in connection with the shooting death of Shawn Moore, in part based upon the admission of dying declarations made by Moore, such as his statement that "Mike shot me." While the trial court found that these statements were admissible under Minnesota Rule of Evidence 804(b)(2), it precluded Hall from impeaching Moore through introduction of his prior convictions under Minnesota Rule of Evidence 609.

Hall subsequently appealed, claiming that this evidentiary ruling was improper, and his appeal eventually reached the Supreme Court of Minnesota. The Minnesota Supremes cited to opinions from other states that had permitted parties to impeach dying declaration declarants through their prior convictions and noted that "[t]raditionally, dying declarations have been considered 'open to impeachment and discrediting in the same way as other witnesses,' including the introduction of the declarant's criminal convictions."  

So, what was the problem? Well, the court noted that the controlling opinion was State v. French, 210 N.W. 45 (Minn. 1926), where it had found that dying declarations "may be impeached by the same means as any other testimony." The court then held, however, that

French did not involve the precise issue before us-a defendant's attempt to impeach with prior convictions. Rather, the defendant in French was attempting to impeach the dying declaration with an inconsistent statement....We need not resolve whether French applies in Hall's case because we conclude that even if Hall should have been allowed to impeach Moore's dying declaration, the district court's refusal to let him do so was harmless error.

Okay, well, I guess that the court didn't have to resolve the issue, but it seems to me that the conclusion in French that dying declarations "may be impeached by the same means as any other testimony" clearly indicates that Rule 609 impeachment would be proper. Moreover, Minnesota Rule of Evidence 806 supports the same conclusion; however, the Supreme Court of Minnesota strangely did not make any reference to that Rule in Hall. Nonetheless, it seems clear to me that despite the court's reluctance to resolve the issue, the trial court's actions were erroneous, and parties should be able to impeach dying declaration declarants through their prior convictions.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2009/05/dying-dec-impeachmentstate-v-hall----nw2d------2009-wl-1228555minn2009.html

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