Thursday, May 30, 2019
Federal Rule of Evidence 804(b)(2) provides an exception to the rule against hearsay for dying declarations. Specifically, it provides an exception,
[i]n 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.
As the recent opinion of the Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 8, California in People v. Ramirez, 4 Cal.App.5th 823 (Cal.App. 2019), makes clear, however, California's dying declarations exception is broader.
In Ramirez, Calvin Eatman was the apparent victim of a hit and run by Hector Manuel Ramirez. Surprisingly, however, when Eatman was taken to the hospital, he said that "he was not hit by a car and actually was assaulted with fists to the head." When Ramirez sought to introduce this statement at his trial for felony hit-and-run driving causing death or injury to another, "[t]he court expressed concern about the reliability of the statement, noting the uncontradicted evidence that Mr. Eatman had been taken to the hospital with a serious head injury and was bleeding profusely."
Nonetheless, the court considered but rejected Ramirez's argument that Eatman's statement was a dying declaration, finding no evidence that Eatman believed his death to be imminent when he made his statement. Indeed, Eatman didn't die until two weeks later due to a heart attack; "[t]he coroner later determined that the cause of Mr. Eatman’s death was coronary heart disease, but the blunt force trauma or skull fracture to the back of his head was a contributing cause."
And this takes us to the distinction between federal and California law. I don't think the prosecution of Ramirez could be called "a prosecution for homicide." As such, there would be no argument that the federal dying declaration exception applies. In California, however, Section 1242 of the California Code of Evidence provides an exception to the rule against hearsay for
Evidence of a statement made by a dying person respecting the cause and circumstances of his death is not made inadmissible by the hearsay rule if the statement was made upon his personal knowledge and under a sense of immediately impending death.
In other words, California's dying declaration exception doesn't contain the homicide limitation for criminal cases. Therefore, that exception could have applied in Ramirez's case even though it ultimately didn't.