EvidenceProf Blog

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

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Nothing's Shocking: Court Of Appeals Of Minnesota Finds Expected But Emotional Event Not Startling For Excited Utterance Purposes

I remember serving as an extern at the Supreme Court of Virginia back in 2002. One of the justice's clerks told me that the justices were deciding whether to hear an appeal in Esser v. Commonwealth, 566 S.E.2d 876 (Va.App. 2002), and asked me to write a memo on the case. The clerk knew that I was interested in evidentiary issues, and Esser presented a juicy one: Can an excited utterance follow a subsequent startling event or condition? Specifically, in Esser, a mother was about to leave her daughter at home with the mother's live-in boyfriend when the daughter emotionally told her mother than the boyfriend had raped her a few days ago. The Court of Appeals of Virginia found that this statement was an excited utterance, concluding that the startling event was not the rape but the daughter being told that she would be left home alone with the boyfriend. In my memo, I noted that courts, and especially Texas courts, were split on the issue, but that I thought that the Court of Appeals' analysis was correct. The Supreme Court of Virginia denied the appeal.

Later, I used the memo to write, A Shock to the System: Analyzing the Conflict Among Courts over Whether and When Excited Utterances May Follow Subsequent Startling Occurrences in Rape and Sexual Assault Cases, 12 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 49 (2005). Thereafter, I was happy to report that the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas eventually agreed with my analysis and found that excited utterances can follow subsequent events and conditions in McCarty v. State, 2008 WL 2512818 (Tex.Crim.App. 2008). In its recent opinion in State v. Goodwin, 2011 WL 1833012 (Minn.App. 2011), the Court of Appeals of Minnesota also agreed with me in theory although it seemingly placed on odd limitation on it as well as the excited utterance exception in general.

In Goodwin, Collin Goodwin was convicted of second-degree assault after allegedly shooting C.G. outside of a bar in MInneapolis, Minnesota. 

C.G. testified that after the shooting, he was taken to the hospital where he underwent surgery for the gunshot wound. Testimony revealed that the bullet fractured C.G.'s left hip bone and that C.G. had two or three small holes in his small intestine and a larger hole in his large intestine. After the surgery, Ralph visited C.G. at the hospital. According to C.G., Ralph was upset and crying and claimed that he and [Goodwin] had been arguing over a girl and that C.G. had taken a bullet meant for Ralph. [Goodwin] objected to this testimony, but the district court admitted Ralph's statement to C.G. as an excited utterance.

After he was convicted, Goodwin appealed, claiming, inter alia, that Ralph's statement was improperly admitted as an excited utterance. The Court of Appeals of Minnesota noted that the issue was governed by Minnesota Rule of Evidence 803(2), which 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.

Now, it was beyond dispute that Ralph was not still under the stress of excitement of the shooting when he made his statement to C.G., but "in admitting Ralph's statements as an excited utterance, the district court clarified that the startling event was not the shooting, but rather seeing the victim 'in the condition that the person was in[:] bedridden having recently come out of surgery." Goodwin countered "that such an event does not qualify as a startling event because it was not a situation where Ralph 'unexpectedly ran into [C.G.] at the hospital and learned about [C.G.'s] condition.'" And, in response, the State cited Esser for the proposition "that the district court properly characterized the event as an excited utterance because cases from other jurisdictions have recognized that a startling event need not be the crime itself." 

According to the Court of Appeals, however, Goodwin did

not challenge the theory on which the court made its conclusion; rather [Goodwin] argue[d] that this particular instance cannot be a startling event. We agree. The record indicates that Ralph consciously chose to visit C.G. in the hospital and that Ralph knew C.G. had been shot. Based on his knowledge of the events, seeing C.G. in a hospital bed following a surgery is not a startling event that would prompt a statement made under the stress of the event. Although Ralph may have been emotional when he saw the victim, an emotional statement is not in and of itself an excited utterance. Therefore, we conclude that the district court abused its discretion in admitting the statement as an excited utterance.

(Ultimately, however, the court found that the admission of Ralph's statement was harmless error)

Okay, so the court held that excited utterances can follow subsequent startling events and conditions other than the crime itself, but it also found...what? That an expected event or condition cannot be startling? That a conscious choice to perceive an event or condition means that the event or condition cannot be startling? With William present, Dan says to Vince on Monday, "If you don't have my money by Friday, I'm coming back to your house and shooting you." If William goes to Vince's house on Friday, sees Dan shoot Vince, and says, "Oh my god! Dan just shot Vince," is that not a startling event because it was expected and/or William consciously chose to perceive it?



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What else would one expect from the Minnesota Court of Appeals. If you think they botch the rules of evidence, you should probe their rulings on real estate law. They have botched so many real estate cases before them, members of the bar build in a 33% of losing a clear cut case simply because the Justices do not understand the concepts. It is embarrassing, but not a surprise. The Gov. needs to stop appointing lawyers that go directly from law clerk to Dist. Ct. Judge to then after a few years or so to the Ct of App. I am of the opinion that flipping a coin to a resolve a legal dispute yields a more fair and predictable result before the MN Court of Appeals.

Posted by: Mr.Smith | Jun 29, 2011 8:37:23 PM

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