EvidenceProf Blog

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

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Another State Of Mind: Supreme Court Of Arkansas Finds Statement Regarding Threat Admissible Under Rule 803(3)

Like its federal counterpartArkansas 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.  

So, does a declarant's statement that there were threats against her life admissible under Rule 803(3)? According to the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Arkansas in Wedgeworth v. State, 2012 WL 503886 (Ark. 2012), the answer is "yes." I disagree.

In Wedgeworth, James Wedgeworth was convicted of capital murder based upon the shooting death of Megan Harbison. Wedgeworth admitted that he shot Harbison, but he claimed that at the time of the shooting he was psychotic and therefore not guilty by reason of mental defect.

After he was convicted, Wedgeworth appealed, claiming, inter alia,

that the circuit court erred in admitting hearsay when it overruled his objection to the testimony of Harbison's father Nathan DuPree that Harbison came to him for help because her relationship with Wedgeworth was beyond her ability to handle and because there were "threats against her life...." Specifically, the following exchange occurred at trial:

Q. Okay. What, and, and, and as you appreciated her comments to you what was she seeking from you?

A. She wanted to get out, she was seeking help to escape from a, a situation that was bigger than she was able to deal with.

Q. And, and was that something that she articulated to you or something you just perceived, or how did you come to that, that belief insofar as what her purpose was in coming to you as her father?

A. Because she told me that there were threats against her life.

Wedgeworth claimed that Dupree's final answer which referenced Harbison's statement about "threats to her life" was inadmissible hearsay. In response, the Supreme Court of Arkansas cited to its prior opinion in MacKool v. State, 365 Ark. 416 (Ark. 2006), for the proposition that

[a]n expression of fear falls within the hearsay exception of Rule 803(3). See, e.g., Hodge v. State, 332 Ark. 377, 965 S.W.2d 766 (1998) (holding that statements that victims had told witnesses they were afraid of Hodge, one made three weeks before death and one made two months before death, were not too remote in time, were admissible under Ark. R. Evid. 803(3), and were relevant); Brenk v. State, 311 Ark. 579, 847 S.W.2d 1 (1993) (stating that witness' testimony that he found the victim crying and when he asked what was the matter, she said, “He's going to kill me” was admissible as a present-sense impression showing the victim's fear under Ark. R. Evid. 803(3)). 

The court then found that "[l]ikewise, the reference to a threat in this case was admissible as a present-sense impression showing the victim's fear under Rule 803(3)."

With due respect to the Supreme Court of Arkansas, this analysis is misguided. As the language of Rule 803(3) makes clear, it allows for statements to be admitted if those statements reveal the present state of mind of a speaker when she made the statement. Conversely, the Rule does not allow for the admission of statements of memory offered to prove past events. In both Hodge and Brenk, the court properly allowed statements to come in because they reflected the state of mind of the speaker when the speaker made the statement. In Wedgeworth, the court improperly allowed Harbison's statement to be introduced to prove a past event remembered -- the alleged threat by Wedgeworth. Of course, the argument could be made that in Brenk, the declarant's statement referenced a past event, presumably a threat by the defendant in the case. But to the extent that it did, it did so indirectly rather than directly and only to prove the state of mind of the declarant. Conversely, the statement in Wedgeworth directly referenced the alleged threat by Wedgeworth.



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