EvidenceProf Blog

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

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

It's All Subjective: Missouri Opinion Explains That Dying Declaration Exception Merely Requires Subjective Belief That Death Is Imminent

Missouri doesn't have official rules of evidence, but it does recognize a state counterpart to Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(2), which provides an exception to the rule against hearsay

[i]n a prosecution for homicide or in a civil action or proceeding, [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 impeding death.

And, a sthe recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, in State v. Minner, 2010 WL 769126 (Mo.App. W.D. 2010), makes, clear, all that matters under this dying declaration exception is the declarant's subjective belief that death is imminent, not the objective reasonableness of that belief.

In Minner, Vincent Minner was convicted of first degree murder, first degree assault, first degree burglary, and two counts of armed criminal action based upon his alleged shooting of Michael Terry. EMTs responded to the scene of that shooting and 

initially treated Terry where he lay in the apartment. Captain James Hailey...then spoke with Terry. Hailey testified that Terry had gunshot wounds to his chest and head and that Terry was weak, ashen, and lying in blood. After conferring with a supervising officer, Hailey told Terry that it looked like he was dying and asked Terry who had shot him. Terry responded that the medics had told him that he was dying and that he knew that he was dying. Hailey again asked Terry who had shot him. Terry indicated to Minner.

Based upon this and other evidence, the trial court allowed Terry's identification of Minner as his shooter to be introduced at trial, and this evidentiary ruling formed one of the grounds for Minner's ensuing appeal. According to Minner,

Terry "was not a man near death, whether he thought he was or not." To support this argument, Minner point[ed] to the fact that medics were not providing frantic treatment to Terry, they were not even with Terry at the time his statement was made to Hailey, and Terry did not volunteer statements to loved ones. Though Terry was severely wounded, Minner argue[d] the scene described by Hailey was calm, more in keeping with a traditional interrogation. Based on these circumstances, Minner contend[ed] that it was not reasonable for Terry to believe he was dying. Of paramount importance to Minner's argument [wa]s the fact that Terry did not die soon after his statement. Minner essentially argue[d] that a declarant's stated belief that death is imminent must be objectively reasonable. Minner also argue[d] that even if Terry reasonably believed his death was imminent, there was no evidence Terry believed there was no hope of recovery.

The appellate court, however, found that this argument was without merit because "[a] declarant's subjective belief that death is imminent is all that need be shown." And if we think about the original basis for the dying declaration exception, this makes sense. The original basis for the exception was that a person didn't want to die with a lie on his lips (lest he go to hell), making dying declarations reliable. Thus, a hypochondriac could unreasonably believe that his paper cut would cause his imminent death, but as long as he actually believes that his death is imminent, that is all that matters under the dying declaration exception.



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