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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Land Of Confusion: Massachusetts Court's Ruling On Prior Inconsistent Statement Reveals Problems With State's Lack Of Rules Of Evidence

With the Supreme Court of Illinois recently approving and promulgating Illinois Rules of Evidence, Massachusetts remains one of the few states without codified rules of evidence. In June 2006, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts did create the Advisory Committee on Massachusetts Evidence Law to prepare a Guide to the Massachusetts law of evidence. And while the Committee did create such a Guide listing Proposed Massachusetts Rules of Evidence, those Proposed Rules were never adopted, and they have been removed from the public eye at the request of the Committee. The result? Cases like Commonwealth v. Belmer, 1210 WL 2, in which the Appeals Court of Massachusetts revealed the tortured history of the rule regarding prior inconsistent statements in Massachusetts.

In Belmer, Dequan Belmer was convicted of assault and battery based upon acts that he allegedly committed against the fifteen year-old victim. The day after the alleged assault and battery,

the victim's mother, Edith Allen-Belmer, went to court and obtained an abuse prevention order against her husband, the defendant...In her affidavit in support of the restraining order, she swore under penalty of perjury that she and the defendant had been arguing the previous night about his infidelity. The victim had intervened and warned the defendant not to touch his mother. The defendant had responded by instigating a fight with the victim, which ended when the defendant "punch[ed] [the victim] in the face," knocking him to the floor. The blow left the victim bleeding and "dazed for about 2 or 3 second[s]." At a hearing..., Allen-Belmer repeated these claims under oath before a judge.

At trial, however,

Allen-Belmer denied that the defendant punched the victim. Instead, she claimed that her argument with the defendant was purely verbal, and that the defendant was "talk[ing] with his hands" during the argument. Eventually, the victim came out of his room and approached his parents. At that moment, the defendant accidentally struck the victim's face with his elbow. Afterwards, the defendant helped the victim up off the floor and took him to the bathroom to wash his wound.

At this point, over Belmer's objection, the prosecution introduced evidence of Allen-Belmar's prior inconsistent statements in the affidavit and at the hearing.

After he was convicted, Belmar appealed, claiming, inter  alia, that these prior inconsistent statements were improperly admitted. In addressing this issue, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts noted that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Commonwealth v. Daye, 469 N.E.2d 483 (Mass. 1984), adopted Proposed Massachusetts Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(A), which provided that

A statement is not hearsay if...[t]he declarant testifies at the trial or hearing and is subject to cross-examination concerning the statement, and the statement is...inconsistent with his testimony and was given under oath subject to the penalty of perjury at a trial, hearing, or other proceeding, or in a deposition.

In Daye, however, the court only adopted the Proposed Rule as it applied to prior grand jury testimony. Subsequently, however, courts adopted the Proposed Rule as it applied to probable cause hearing testimony and testimony from prior trials. In Belmer, the court adopted the Proposed Rule as it applied to Allen-Belmer's prior statements because they satisfied the two part test laid out by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Daye: (1) the declarant was subject to cross-examination, and (2) the prior statement was in the declarant's own words, as opposed to being simply "yes" or "no" answers to leading questions.

The court also noted that in Daye, the court also held that when a prior inconsistent statement "concerns an essential element of the crime, the Commonwealth must offer at least some corroborative evidence..." The court, however, noted that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts later concluded that this requirement affects only the sufficiency of the evidence, not the admissibility of the statement.

This is exactly the type of confusion and piecemeal approach that you get when a jurisdiction does not have codified rules of evidence, and I hope that Massachusetts changes its prior decision and eventually adopts its Proposed Rules of Evidence in some form. We'll see.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/10/801d1a-com-v-belmer-ne2d-1210-wl-2massappct1210.html

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