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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

War is Hell: Supreme Court of Iowa Finds Letters Written from Iraq Inadmissible to Establish Diminished Capacity

Similar to its federal counterpartIowa Rule of Evidence 5.803(1) provides an exception to the rule againat hearsay for

A statement describing or explaining an event or condition made while the declarant was perceiving the event or condition, or immediately thereafter.

And, similar to its federal counterpartIowa Rule of Evidence 5.803(3) provides an exception to the rule againat 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.

In State v. Thompson, 2013 WL 4483527 (Iowa 2013), the Supreme Court of Iowa found that letters that the defendant sent from Iraq describing his war experiences were inadmissible under either of these exceptions to establish his diminished capacity defense. My question, though, is why the defendant did not rely on another hearsay exception.

In Thompson, Christopher Thompson was convicted of

second-degree murder for the death of his live-in girlfriend, Angela Gabel. He fatally shot her twice in the head after she made an obscene gesture from inside a parked car where she had retreated during an argument.

After he was convicted, Thompson appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court erred in precluding him from admitting letters that he sent from Iraq describing his war experiences. According to Thompson, these letters were admissible under Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.803(1) or Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.803(3) and would have established that he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which would have created a viable diminished capacity defense. The Supreme Court of Iowa disagreed, concluding that

Thompson failed to lay a foundation supporting any exception to the hearsay rule such as present sense impression or then existing mental, emotional, or physical state of mind. See Iowa R. Evid. 5.803(1), (3). For example, Thompson never showed the letters were written while he was “perceiving the event...or immediately thereafter.” See id. r. 5.803(1).

I don't have access to Thompson's letters, but I probably agree with the court's conclusion. If, for instance, Thompson wrote that "an IED almost blew us up a few days ago," the letter would not qualify for admission under either of these exceptions.

But what about Iowa Rule of Evidence 5.803(2)? That Rule provides an exception to the rule against hearsay for

A statement relating to a startling event or condition made while the declarant was under the stress of excitement caused by the event or condition.

Isn't war and all of its attendant circumstances a startling event? And wasn't Thompson's whole point that the letters showed that he was suffering from PTSD, i.e., that he was still under the stress of excitement caused by the event (war)? Given this, wouldn't the letters have qualified as excited utterances?

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2013/09/ptsd-803-state-v-thompson-nw2d-2013-wl-4483527iowa2013.html

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