Friday, January 11, 2013
A Foolish Consistency?: "An Unneeded Hearsay Exception" & The Case Against The Rule 801(d)(1)(B) Amendment
Currently, Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(B) provides that
A statement that meets the following conditions is not hearsay:
(1) A Declarant-Witness’s Prior Statement. The declarant testifies and is subject to cross-examination about a prior statement, and the statement:....
(B) is consistent with the declarant’s testimony and is offered to rebut an express or implied charge that the declarant recently fabricated it or acted from a recent improper influence or motive in so testifying....
(1) Prior statement by witness. The declarant testifies at the trial or hearing and is subject to cross-examination concerning the statement, and the statement is...(B) consistent with the declarant's testimony and helpful to the trier of fact in evaluating the declarant's credibility as a witness...
In other words, under the Minnesota Rule, a witness's prior consistent statement can be admitted as non-hearsay even if there is no express or implied charge that the witness recently fabricated his trial testimony or acted from a recent improper influence or motive in so testifying. Under a proposed amendment, however, Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(B) would be functionally similar to Minnesota Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(B). So, why has this change been proposed, and does it make sense?First, let's look at the proposed language of the new Rule. The amended Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(B) would provide that
A statement that meets the following conditions is not hearsay:
(1) A Declarant-Witness's Prior Statement. The declarant testifies and is subject to cross-examination about a prior statement, and the statement:....
(B) is consistent with the declarant's testimony and (i) is offered to rebut an express or implied charge that the declarant recently fabricated it or acted from a recent improper influence or motive in so testifying or (ii) otherwise rehabilitates the declarant’s credibility as a witness....
The italicized language is the proposed addition to Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(B), and allow me to explain its import. Under the current version of the Rule, a prior consistent statement is admissible as nonhearsay only if there is an express or implied charge that the witness recently fabricated his trial testimony or acted from a recent improper influence or motive in so testifying. So, let's say that Wiliaml, a witness for the prosecution, testifies, "I saw [Defendant] shoot the victim." Then, let's say that defense counsel asks, "Isn't it true that you are testifying today based upon a grant of immunity?" The implication of the question is that the offer of immunity is the reason why William is incriminating [Defendant], which is why the prosecution could then admit statements that William made incriminating [Defendant] before being approached regarding a grant of immunity.
Conversely, let's say that William testified, and then defense counsel:
(1) asks WIlliam whether he has a prior burglary conviction from 2006;
(2) asks William whether he cheated on his taxes in 2007; or
(3) asks William whether he has held a grudge against [Defendant] for years.
With these or similar questions, defense counsel is certainly impeaching the credibility of WIlliam, but defense counsel is not claiming that there was a recent fabrication or a recent improper influence or motive. Indeed, all of the above questions relate to events that occurred years ago. So, under the current Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(1)(B), none of these forms of impeachment would allow for the admission of other statements of William consistent with his trial testimony as nonhearsay.
But, under the amended Rule 801(d)(1)(B), because each of these questions impeach William's credibility, William's other consistent statements would be admissible nonhearsay under new subsection (ii) because they would rehabilitate his credibility.
So, does this make sense? In the recent article, An Unneeded Hearsay Exception, Laird Kirkpatrick, the Louis Harkey Mayo Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School, argues that the answer is "no." And he's not alone. As he notes,
In a survey of federal judges conducted by the committee, 72 percent said they believed the proposed amendment would lead to more prior consistent statements being admitted, yet less than half of them thought that this would be a good result.
The amendment could lead to an increased number of reversals in cases in which prior consistent statements are found to have been erroneously admitted. Under current law, if a prior consistent statement is admitted improperly, for example by relating facts going beyond the trial testimony, courts often find the error to be harmless by relying on the fact that the statement was not admitted for substantive purposes. But under the proposed amendment such statements would become substantive evidence upon which the jury could rely, making a finding of harmless error more difficult.
This argument relates to the rationale for why the current amendment has been proposed:
The proposal to amend Rule 801(d)(1)(B) originated with Judge Frank W. Bullock, Jr., when he was a member of the Standing Committee. Judge Bullock proposed that Rule 801(d)(1)(B) be amended to provide that prior consistent statements are admissible under the hearsay exemption whenever they would be admissible to rehabilitate the witness’s credibility. Under the current Rule, some prior consistent statements offered to rehabilitate a witness’s credibility—specifically, those that rebut a charge of recent fabrication or improper influence or motive—are also admissible substantively. But other rehabilitative statements—such as those that explain a prior inconsistency or rebut a charge of faulty recollection—are not admissible under the hearsay exemption, but only for rehabilitation. There are two basic practical problems in distinguishing between substantive and credibility use as applied to prior consistent statements. First, the necessary jury instruction is almost impossible for jurors to follow. The prior consistent statement is of little or no use for credibility unless the jury believes it to be true. Second, and for similar reasons, the distinction between substantive and impeachment use of prior consistent statements has little, if any, practical effect. The proponent has already presented the witness’s trial testimony, so the prior consistent statement ordinarily adds no real substantive effect to the proponent's case.
In other words, the amendment is not based upon the belief that consistent statements offered to rehabilitate are reliable or important enough to be considered nonhearsay; instead, the amendment is based upon jurors ignoring jury instructions. That wouldn't make the new Rule unique; the Bruton doctrine is also premised upon the belief that jurors will ignore jury instructions in a certain context. But what the Bruton doctrine does it to deem inadmissible statements that jurors are likely to use for improper purposes while the amended Rule 801(d)(1)(B) deems admissible statements under similar circumstances. I strongly disagree with this reasoning and agree with the majority of judges to argue against the amended Rule.