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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Idaho State Of Mind: Supreme Court Of Idaho Finds Statements Offered Under State Of Mind Exception Were Irrelevant In Murder Appeal

Like its federal counterpartIdaho Rule of Evidence 803(3) provides an exception to the rule against hearsay for: 

A statement of the declarant's then existing state of mind, emotion, sensation, or physical condition (such as intent, plan, motive, design, mental feeling, pain, and bodily health), but not including a statement of memory or belief to prove the fact remembered or believed unless it relates to the execution, revocation, identification, or terms of declarant's will.   

Now, at first blush, it seems like this exception is pretty broad and would allow for the admission of many statements. Basically, as long as a person says something about how he is (presently) feeling or what he plans to do (in the future), the statement seemingly could be admitted under the exception; only statements about what transpired in the past would be excluded. As the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Idaho in State v. Shackelford, 2010 WL 173825 (Idaho 2010) makes clear, however, there is still a relevance requirement to this exception, and, according to the court, it was not satisfied in the case before it.

In ShackelfordDale Carter Shackelford was convicted of the first-degree murders of Donna Fontaine and Fred Palahniuk, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, first-degree arson, conspiracy to commit first-degree arson, and preparing false evidence. At trial, "[s]ix witnesses were allowed to testify as to statements made by Donna expressing her fear that Shackelford was going to harm her." The trial court found that Donna's statements fell under Idaho Rule of Evidence 803(3), and this evidentiary decision formed the partial basis for Shackelford's appeal.

In considering Shackelford's appeal, the Supreme Court of Idaho noted that 

statements may be admitted [under this exception] only after a determination that (1) the declaration is relevant, and (2) the need for and value of such testimony outweighs the possibility of prejudice to the defendant.    

The Idaho Supremes also noted that Idaho courts have recogized

four well-defined categories in which a declarant-victim's state of mind is relevant because of its relationship to the legal theories presented by the parties: (1) when the defendant claims self-defense as justification for the killing; (2) when the defendant seeks to build his defense around the fact that the deceased committed suicide evidence introduced which tends to demonstrate that the victim made statements inconsistent with a design to take his or her own life is relevant; (3) when the defendant claims the killing was accidental; and (4) when a specific “mens rea” is in issue.

These are important points that are often overlooked in analyses of the state of mind exception. In your average murder case, why would a (future) victim's statement that she was afraid of the (future) defendant be relevant? A defendant could kill a victim who did not fear him and be found guilty just as easily as a defendant who killed a victim who did fear him. Of course, the victim's statement that she feared the defendant could be relevant to the extent that the statement referenced prior acts by the defendant that caused that fear, but then the statement becomes about past acts and is not covered by the state of mind exception to the rule against hearsay.

So, how did this all play out in Shackelford? Well, the trial court ostensibly admitted Donna's statements under the theory that Shackelford had claimed that she committed suicide, meaning that the prosecution could rebut this theory of the case with statements that Donna was afraid that Shackelford was going to harm her, "statements inconsistent with a design to take his her own life." The problem with this conclusion, according to the Supreme Court of Idaho, was that

Shackelford did make statements during the police investigation regarding the possibility that Donna had committed suicide; however, we find that those statements were not sufficient to allow rebuttal of a defense theory of suicide. The defense did not present a theory of suicide during the trial itself. Instead, the State offered testimony regarding Shackelford's statements during the initial investigation about suicide, and the defense merely offered testimony to show that any mention Shackelford made of suicide during the initial investigation did not affect the investigation in any way.   

The Idaho Supremes thus found that Donna's statements were improperly admitted but found that there was enough evidence of Shackelford's guilt to render this error harmless.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/01/state-of-mindstate-v-shackelford----p3d------2010-wl-173825idaho2010.html

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