EvidenceProf Blog

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

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Supreme Court of Montana Addresses State of Mind Hearsay Exception

Similar to its federal counterpart, Montana Rule of Evidence 803(3) 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), but not including a statement of memory or belief to prove the fact remembered or believed.

It's important to note, though, that many statements about a declarant's state of mind will be irrelevant or have a probative value that is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. A good example can be found in the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of Montana in State v. Gomez, 460 P.3d 926 (Mont. 2020).

In Gomez, Emmanuel Gomez was charged with partner or family member assault (PFMA) and deliberate homicide of Charlie Wyrick. Gomez was subsequently convicted after the trial court used Rule 803(3) to allow for the admission of several statements by Wyrick that established she was afraid of Gomez. After he was convicted, Gomez appealed based on the court's use of Rule 803(3), and the Supreme Court of Montana held that 

After reviewing the record in this case, we conclude the District Court abused its discretion in admitting Wyrick’s out-of-court statements to prove she feared Gomez, because the danger of jury misuse of the evidence far outweighed any relevance of the evidence to a material issue in the case. The State’s proposed path of relevance is a circuitous route: Wyrick’s fear was proof of Gomez’s motive to control her, and his motive to control her made it more likely that he in fact committed PFMA against her and killed her. Even the prosecution did not bother to follow this chain of logic, repeatedly using Wyrick’s statements as direct proof of Gomez’s abuse in its closing argument. The State’s theory of relevance for Wyrick’s state of mind “bears only a remote or artificial relationship to the legal or factual issues raised in the case” and the evidence is thus inadmissible....The District Court abused its discretion in admitting Wyrick’s out-of-court statements as evidence of her state of mind.

That said, the court found this error to be harmless.



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It appears the trial court admitted the victim’s statements to show the defendant’s state of mind (his motive to control her). I read the state of mind exception to admit hearsay statements as probative of the declarant’s state of mind, not a third person’s state of mind. Can someone help me out?

Posted by: Bryan | Nov 24, 2020 10:27:16 PM

Bryan, that was the stated purpose, but as the Supreme Court of Minnesota held, it *really* appeared that they were using her "statements as direct proof of Gomez’s abuse."

Posted by: Colin Miller | Nov 25, 2020 4:58:55 AM

I disagree with the court. The victim's statements were of her state of mind - her fear of defendant. This was circumstantial evidence that defendant caused that fear, which is probative of his possible desire to control her. I don't see any possible mis-use of the evidence that is so prejudicial that it should be excluded.

Posted by: Fred Moss | Nov 30, 2020 10:31:05 AM

Fred, but the hearsay exception is specifically prohibitive of using the out of court statement to prove the fact that something occured. This is precisely the reason why the prosecution included it and , apparently, leaned upon heavily throughout closing. I mean you can take issue with the way the exception is written-saying it shouldn’t have that explicit limitation-but you can’t say the court is wrong in applying the rule as it is explicitly written.

Posted by: Paul | Dec 3, 2020 3:21:12 PM

PauI, I completely disagree with your first sentence. Exceptions are admitted to prove the truth of the matter asserted, here, her fear. That established by her statements, the only question is the relevance of the fact, her fear of Deft. It is admittedly a long inferential chain from her fear to his threatening behavior that caused that fear and then to his having killed her, but I still don't see the countervailing prejudice. If your kid was hit by a rock thrown at him on the playground, wouldn't it be relevant as to who did it that your kid was afraid of Joey?

Posted by: Fred Moss | Dec 16, 2020 3:39:28 PM

According to the ruling, the prosecutor didn’t even use the inferential route. He was using someone other than the kid himself to say another kid heard he was scared ofJoey, then using that hearsay to say Joey must have thrown the rock.

Posted by: Paul | Dec 20, 2020 5:30:13 AM

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