EvidenceProf Blog

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

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It Wasn't Him: Mattox v. United States & The Use of Dying Declarations by Defendants

Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(2) provides an exception to the rule against hearsay

In a prosecution for homicide or in a civil case, [for] a statement that the declarant, while believing the declarant’s death to be imminent, made about its cause or circumstances.

Typically, this "dying declaration" exception is considered to be an arrow in the prosecutorial quiver, with the victim's statement that the defendant shot/stabbed/choked him being used to prove his guilt. But that's not always the case, with the Supreme Court's opinion in Mattox v. United States, 146 U.S. 140 (1892) being the classic example of a dying declaration being used to exonerate the defendant.

In Mattox,

The evidence tended to show that Mullen was shot in the evening between 8 and 9 o'clock, and that he died about 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon of the next day; that three shots were fired and three wounds inflicted; that neither of the wounds was necessarily fatal, but that the deceased died of pneumonia produced by one of them described as 'in the upper lobe of the right lung, entering about two or three inches above the right nipple, passing through the upper lobe of the right lung, fracturing one end of the fourth rib, passing through and lodging beneath the skin on the right side beneath the shoulder blade.’ The attending physician, who was called a little after 9 o'clock and remained with the wounded man until about 9 o'clock in the morning, and visited him again between 8 and 9 o'clock, testified that Mrs. Hatch, the mother of Clyde Mattox, was present at that visit; that he regarded Mullen's recovery as hopeless; that Mullen, being ‘perfectly conscious' and ‘in a normal condition as regards his mind,’ asked his opinion, and the doctor said to him: ‘The chances are all against you; I do not think there is any show for you at all.’ The physician further testified, without objection, that, after he had informed Mullen as to his physical condition, he asked him as to who shot him, and he replied ‘he didn't have any knowledge of who shot him. I interrogated him about three times in regard to that,-who did the shooting,-and he didn't know.’ Counsel for defendant, after a colloquy with the court, propounded the following question: ‘Did or did not John Mullen, in your presence and at that time, say, in reply to a question of Mrs. Hatch, ‘I know your son, Clyde Mattox, and he did not shoot me; I saw the parties who shot me, and Clyde was not one of them?’' This question was objected to as incompetent, the objection sustained, and defendant excepted. Counsel also propounded to Mrs. Hatch this question: ‘Did or did not John Mullen say to you, on the morning you visited him, and after Dr. Graham had told him that all the chances for life were against him, ‘I know Clyde Mattox, your son, and he was not one of the parties who shot me?’' This was objected to on the ground of incompetency, the objection sustained, and defendant excepted. (emphasis added).

The Supreme Court later reversed Mattox's conviction, finding that [d]ying declarations are admissible on a trial for murder, as to the fact of the homicide and the person by whom it was committed, in favor of the defendant as well as against him."



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