EvidenceProf Blog

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Serial Podcast, Take 2: The Erroneous Admission of Hae Min Lee's Letter About Adnan Syed's State of Mind

On Friday, I posted a first entry about the Serial Podcast, in which Sarah Koenig investigates the 1999 prosecution of 17 year-old Adnan Syed for murdering his ex-girlfriend, 18 year-old Hae Min Lee. In that post, I noted how Adnan's trial counsel seriously erred by failing to object in whole or in part to the admission of Hae's diary, which the prosecution introduced under Maryland Rule of Evidence 5-803(b)(3) to prove the nature of their relationship and how Hae felt in its aftermath. There were three ways that defense counsel could have objected to this evidence: (1) Hae's state of mind was irrelevant to any material issue at trial, cf., Jenks v. Naples Community Hospital, Inc., 829 F.Supp.2d 1235, 1248 (M.D.Flas. 2011); (2) the diary was merely cumulative of other evidence already in the record, see, e.g., People v. Fisher, 476 N.W.2d 889 (Mich. 1991) (Boyle and Riley, J., dissenting); and (3) the prosecution was using the diary to prove past facts, not present feeling, see, e.g., Crawford v. State, 770 N.E.2d 775, 780-81 (Ind. 2002). For a good example of a similar case in which diary entries of an ex-wife were deemed inadmissible in her husband's prosecution for her murder, you can take a look at the Supreme Court of Delaware's decision in Capano v. State, 781 A.2d 556 (Del. 2001).

In today's post, I'm going to address another evidentiary issue raised by Adnan in his direct appeal of his conviction to the Maryland Special Court of Appeals. According to Adnan's brief, 

At trial, the State introduced a letter from Hae to Appellant, on the back of which Appellant and one of his classmates, Aisha Pittman, allegedly exchanged notes during a high  school class....The letter constituted inadmissible hearsay  which did not fall under any exception to the hearsay rule. In it, Hae told Appellant of her feelings about the break up, and about her perceptions and opinions as to Appellant's feelings  about the break up.  

....I'm really getting annoyed that this situation is going the way it is....Your life is NOT going to end. You'll move on and I'll move on. But, apparently, you don't respect my decision....I NEVER wanted to end this like this, so hostile and cold....Hate me if you will. But you should remember that I could never hate you.  

So, was this letter properly admitted?

Unlike with the diary, defense counsel did timely object to admission of this letter, but the court overruled the objection. Again, the court deemed the letter admissible under Maryland Rule of Evidence 5-803(b)(3), which 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), offered to prove the declarant's then existing condition or the declarant's future action, 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.

On appeal, Adnan's objection to the admission of this letter was two-fold: (1) Hae's state of mind was irrelevant to any material issue of trial; and (2) the letter was inadmissible to the extent it referenced Adnan's state of mind. I've already argued why (1) is correct in connection with the diary. So, what about (2)? Again, I think that Adnan was correct. Why?

Maryland Rule of Evidence 5-803(b)(3) is modeled after Federal Rule of Evidence 803(3), and the Notes of the Committee on the Judiciary accompanying its passage indicated that

Rule 803(3) was approved in the form submitted by the Court to Congress. However, the Committee intends that the Rule be construed to limit the doctrine of Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Hillmon, 145 U.S. 285, 295-300 (1892), so as to render statements of intent by a declarant admissible only to prove his future conduct, not the future conduct of another person.

This seems crystal clear, right? While Rule 803(3) might allow for the admission of statements showing how the speaker felt or planned to act, it does not allow for the admission of statements showing how another person felt or planned to act. In practice, however, there's actually a circuit split on the issue, as noted by Lynn McLain. So, where does Maryland fall on the divide? Let's take a look at Figgins v. Cochrane, 942 A.2d 736, 754 (Md. 2008):

A declarant's statement of intention may not be used to prove the subsequent actions of another because "the hearsay dangers of perception and memory are present....[A] declarant may be insincere; for example, the declarant may be concocting a 'cover story' for his or her true intentions or falsely boasting of a relationship with the other person." 6A Lynn McLain,Maryland Evidence 206 (2d ed.2001).

Therefore, as the Court of Special Appeals concluded in the present case, actions taken by individuals other than the declarant are irrelevant to the state of mind exception; "[T]he statement of intent is admissible to prove the declarant's future actions, not the future actions of someone else."

And there you have it. The letter should have been deemed inadmissible. Moreover, the admission of the letter was hugely important because the prosecution's theory of the case was that Adnan was devastated by the breakup, giving him the motive to kill Hae. 

UPDATE 12/1/14: Here is Hae's letter:

Hae Letter



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Do you agree with the law on this point? Don't you think the diary of the decedent should be admitted when it's critical evidence of a rocky end of a relationship?

Posted by: TVJ | Nov 24, 2014 10:48:34 PM

Well, here's the thing: If you allow the diary in, you're basically eliminating the rule against hearsay. Rule 803(3) allows for the admission of statements of present feeling and future intention. If you were allowed to present evidence (such as a diary) about past recollection, there would basically be no rule against hearsay. Now, some certainly have advocated for an end to the rule against hearsay, but I'm not on board with that position.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Nov 25, 2014 3:42:04 AM

In this case I would have thought the important thing about the letter was the comment purportedly written by the Appellant " I'm going to kill" and this refers to possible future action of the declarant. The letter provides a context. Personally I think it should be admissible and I'm glad common sense prevailed.

Posted by: Amac | Nov 25, 2014 3:57:31 PM

Amac, if the letter were offered for the nonhearsay purpose of providing context for the note on the back, I agree that it could have been deemed admissible. But the government's claim was that "the letter was admissible to show Hae Lee intended to end the relationship between herself and Syed. Maryland Rule 5-803(b)(3)." As I note in this post, I think that's a misinterpretation of the Rule. I do agree with you, though, that the note was admissible:


Posted by: Colin Miller | Nov 25, 2014 5:06:21 PM

Just a note for accuracy - In the Capano case the murder victim was his girlfriend not ex-wife. Love reading your posts.

Posted by: Christy | Jan 13, 2015 10:26:22 AM

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