Saturday, January 2, 2010
Objection, Your Honor!: Supreme Court Of Rhode Island Opinion Demonstrates Importance Of Stating Correct Grounds For Objections
You've seen it a million times in legal movies and TV shows. A lawyer asks a witness a question, opposing counsel stands up and exclaims, "Objection, your Honor," and the judge overrules (or sustains) the objection. Like many other aspects of legal movies and TV shows, this is not the way that things are usually done in courtrooms across the country. If an attorney merely stood up and said, "Objection," in response to a question without stating the grounds for that objection, that attorney would not have preserved the issue for appellate review. Indeed, as the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island in State v. Reyes, 2009 WL 4730822 (R.I. 2009), makes clear, even if an attorney does state a ground for his objection, but it is the wrong ground, he has not preserved the issue for appellate review.
In Reyes, Pedro Muriel Reyes, was convicted of second-degree murder, discharging a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence resulting in the death of another, and the unlicensed possession of a firearm. Before trial, Joseph Parra told a detective that he saw Reyes leaving the scene of the subject shooting in a burgundy Lincoln Navigator. At trial, however, Parra recanted this statement and testified that he didn't see anyone, let alone Reyes, enter a Lincoln Navigator, leading to the following exchange:
“[Prosecutor]: Mr. Parra, do you remember the first question being addressed to you that, 'Joseph, this department is presently investigating the homicide that occurred on the 26th of November 2000. Prior to recording of this statement you indicated you possessed certain knowledge that may assist in our investigation. Drawing your attention to the early morning hours of that same date, the 26th, can you explain what you know?' And do you recall your answer being, 'It was after 2:00 A.M.-'
“[Defense Counsel]: Objection, Your Honor.
“The Court: The basis for the objection?
“[Defense Counsel]: The basis is there's no foundation for him to ask this particular question. Just continuing reading from the document. First part of that obviously a condition precedent as to why he was there giving a statement. I think that was objectionable. If he's going to read the entire statement it's not proper before the Court.”
The court then overruled this objection and allowed for admission of Parra's prior inconsistent statement. After he was convicted, Reyes appealed, claiming, inter alia, that Parra's prior statement was inadmissible hearsay. That appeal eventually reached the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, which found that Reyes failed to preserve the issue for appellate review, concluding that:
On its face, th[e above] objection does not raise hearsay....What is clear from the context is that defendant objected to the prosecutor reading into evidence Parra's prior statement without first giving Parra an opportunity to confirm or deny that he remembered providing it to [the detective]. Nothing in the objection even suggests that the prior statement was inadmissible hearsay. We consider the defendant to have waived appellate review of this argument because he failed to object on hearsay grounds to Parra's prior statement.
In other words, defense counsel messed up, precluding appellate review. Now, the Rhode Island Supremes went on to note that even if Reyes had preserved the issue, he still would have lost because Parra's prior inconsistent statement was admissible nonhearsay under Rhode Island Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(A). At first, I thought that the court had also messed up because Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(A) defines a prior inconsistent statement as nonhearsay only if it "was given under oath subject to the penalty of perjury at a trial, hearing, or other proceeding, or in a deposition." Rhode Island Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(A), however, contains no such requirement, meaning that Parra's statement would have been admissible not only to impeach Parra but also to prove the truth of the matter asserted in it because it was nonhearsay.