EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Horton Hears A Hearsay: Appeals Court Of Massachusetts Makes Interesting Ruling Concerning Statements Against Interest

Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(3) provides an exception to the rule against hearsay for 

A statement which was at the time of its making so far contrary to the declarant's pecuniary or proprietary interest, or so far tended to subject the declarant to civil or criminal liability, or to render invalid a claim by the declarant against another, that a reasonable person in the declarant's position would not have made the statement unless believing it to be true.

Massachusetts does not have codified rules of evidence but it has recognized this statement against interest exception to the rule against hearsay in its case law. And, pursuant to the Supreme Court's opinion in Williamson v. United States, 512 U.S. 594 (1994), when a declarant makes a broadly self-inculpatory confession which also contains some self-exculpatory statements, courts will admit only the self-inculpatory statements and excise the self-exculpatory statements under the statement against interest exception. But what happens when a declarant makes a broadly self-exculpatory statement which also contains some self-inculpatory statements? That was the question addressed by the Appeals Court of Massachusetts in Commonwealth v. Dejarnette, 2009 WL 2595871 (Mass.App.Ct. 2009).

In Dejarnette, after searching an apartment in which the Nickolas Dejarnette was staying, police found a Doctor Seuss backpack with the his name written inside containing cocaine, ecstasy, and ammunition. Dejarnette was thereafter tried and convicted of trafficking in cocaine, possession of ecstacy with intent to distribute, and possession of a firearm and ammunition without an FID card.  

Dejarnette's conviction was likely based in part on the admission of hearsay statements made by William Coleman, the boyfriend of the lawful owner of the apartment. The admission of Coleman's statements, however, was partially Dejarnette's own doing. Coleman was in the apartment on the day it was searched, and he thereafter made a statement to police in which he admitted to using some of the drugs in the apartment and that his fingerprints would thus likely be some of the drugs. Dejarnette wanted to use these statements to prove that the drugs seized could have belonged to Coleman and not him.

The problem for Dejarnette, however, was these self-inculpatory statements were small parts of an overall self-exculpatory statement by Coleman. Coleman also told the police, inter alia, that he had heard that Dejarnette was a drug dealer who dealt coke, that he had seen Dejarnette with a small gun, and that he had seen Dejarnette use a closet which contained a safe in which a gun and drugs were found.

The Commonwealth thus argued that if some of Coleman's statement to the police came in, all of it should come in, and the trial court found that the "Commonwealth might have the right to put in other statements damaging to the defendant 'in an effort not to give the jury a distorted version of what [Coleman] said.'" Thereafter, "[d]efense counsel did not object and, after consulting with the defendant, he agreed that '[b]y right, if I allude to a portion of this, the whole thing should come in.'"  

Nonetheless, after Dejarnette was convicted, he appealed, with part of the basis for his appeal being that the trial court erred and that he was given the ineffective assistance of counsel based upon the admission of the entirety of Coleman's statement. In addressing this argument, the Appeals Court of Court of Massachusetts noted that Coleman's statement was broadly self-exculpatory and found that

In these circumstances, the trial judge was understandably hesitant to allow the narrowly self-inculpatory statements in as declarations against interest. This was a close call and it would have been within his discretion either to declare the statement proposed by defense counsel regarding smoking marijuana and touching the bag of cocaine to be inadmissible in the circumstances because it was not actually a declaration against interest, or to allow it in with some limited “necessary surrounding context” to prevent its significance from being distorted by defense counsel....Nevertheless, the solution proposed by the prosecution, and agreed to by the defendant, to allow the whole statement in evidence was erroneous.

The court, however, found that the admission of the whole statement was harmless error because the "[s]tatements by Coleman incriminating the defendant could be portrayed as self-serving attempts to shift blame," and they merely "duplicated other evidence." The court also rejected Dejarnette's ineffective assistance of counsel claim, finding that the compromise accepted by his attorney was not "manifestly unreasonable."

I agree with the court's overall conclusion that there was not reversible error, but I also don't think that there was error by the court, or at least error attributable to it. First, because Dejarnette's attorney agreed that if he alluded to a portion of Coleman's statement, the whole thing should come in,'" the admission of the entire statement could have fallen under the invited error doctrine, rendering it not subject to appeal. Second, there is a good argument that admission of the entire statement was required under the rule of completeness, which provides that 

When a writing or recorded statement or part thereof is introduced by a party, an adverse party may require the introduction at that time of any other part or any other writing or recorded statement which ought in fairness to be considered contemporaneously with it.    



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