Victims’ Statements about Defendants’ Prior Violent Acts

The court of appeals just decided State v. Hernandez, which raises an important and recurrent hearsay issue. Briefly, the facts of Hernandez are as follows: the defendant traveled with his girlfriend, the victim, to her mother’s home. The defendant exhibited jealous behavior towards his girlfriend. His girlfriend told her mother that the defendant was “wanted in Chicago for an attempted knife assault on his baby’s mother and that she wanted him to leave their house. [She] also told her mother that she had previously tried to leave defendant but that he had stalked her and dragged her by her hair.”

After an argument, the defendant stabbed his girlfriend to death. He was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. At trial, the mother testified to her daughter’s comments about the defendant’s violent history. The trial judge gave a limiting instruction, telling the jury to consider the statements only as evidence of the victim’s state of mind. On appeal, the defendant argued that the statements were hearsay not within any exception and should not have been admitted.

The court of appeals disagreed, concluding that the statements were admissible under N.C. R. Evid. 803(3) as “statement[s] of the declarant’s then-existing state of mind.” Intermingled in the opinion is some language suggesting that the statements were not hearsay at all, as when the court indicates that they were “not offered to prove the facts asserted” insofar as they were offered to establish the victim’s mental state. Finally, the court held that any error was not prejudicial in light of the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt.

While the lack of prejudice conclusion appears to be a slam-dunk on the facts described in the opinion — and is sufficient to resolve the case — the others raise complicated questions. Since victims’ statements about defendants’ prior violent acts are very frequently the subject of litigation, it’s worth looking at this issue in a little more detail.

First, are such statements hearsay at all, or are they offered for a non-hearsay purpose? There is ample authority for the proposition that such statements are not hearsay because they establish the victim’s state of mind. See, e.g., State v. Holder, 331 N.C. 462 (1992); State v. Petrick, 186 N.C.App. 597 (2007) (victim’s statements to friends about defendant’s prior acts of violence towards her properly admitted not for the truth of the matter asserted but to show the victim’s state of mind, which “bears directly on the victim’s relationship with defendant . . . and his motive, intent, plan, or absence of mistake”). But a leading commentator has criticized Holder as “clearly incorrect in that the victim’s state of mind was not relevant to any issue in the case.” 2 Kenneth S. Broun, Brandis & Broun on North Carolina Evidence 102 n.46 (6th ed. 2004). In other words, the statements may properly be offered for a non-hearsay purpose only if it is a relevant non-hearsay purpose. However, most North Carolina cases have held that the victim’s state of mind is a relevant non-hearsay purpose because it illuminates the relationship between the defendant and the victim and suggests that defendant’s possible motive. See generally Reagan F. McClellan, Note, State v. Alston, etc., 32 Wake Forest L. Rev. 1327 (1997) (noting and criticizing this trend).

Assuming arguendo that such statements are not admissible as non-hearsay, are they admissible under the state of mind exception in Rule 803(3)? The Rule applies to “statement[s] of the declarant’s . . . state of mind.” Thus, when the statements merely recite events — “the defendant hit me” or “the defendant told me that he would kill me if I left him” — without describing the declarant’s feelings about those events, the statements may not fall within the exception. See State v. Hardy, 339 N.C. 207 (1994); State v. Marecek, 130 N.C. App. 303 (1998). The defendant in Hernandez argued that the statements at issue in that case fell in this category; the court of appeals disagreed and distinguished Marecek, though I confess that I can’t seem to grasp the distinction.

In any event, when a statement is, in fact, a statement “of the declarant’s . . . state of mind,” it falls within a hearsay exception. But again, it should be admitted only when the declarant’s — i.e., the victim’s — state of mind is relevant. That’s more or less the same issue addressed above. Again, most of the reported cases favor admission of such evidence, though again Professor Broun thinks that our appellate courts have “too often easily made the jump from the feelings of the victim to the motive of the accused.” 2 Broun, supra, at 179.

There are some practice pointers that may help determine the admissibility of victims’ statements:

  • If the state can show that the defendant was aware that the victim was telling others about problems in the victim’s and the defendant’s relationship, the victim’s statements are relevant to the defendant’s state of mind — they show that the defendant may have been motivated to silence the victim or to prevent her from leaving the relationship. Admissibility in these cases is easy. Cf., e.g., State v. Quick, 323 N.C. 675 (1989) (victim’s statement in a letter to defendant that “this is the end of our relationship” admissible to show the defendant’s motive).
  • If the state is able to connect any recitations of past events to emotions experienced by the victim, the statements are more likely to fall within Rule 803(3). In fact, in Marecek, discussed above, on retrial the state showed a closer connection between the victim’s narration of events and the victim’s feelings. As a result, the admission of the statements was affirmed. 152 N.C. App. 479 (2002).
  • Closely consider the relevance of the victim’s state of mind. As noted above, courts have often held that the victim’s state of mind about the defendant and her relationship with him is evidence of the defendant’s possible motive, but whether this is so in a particular case bears attention.
  • Finally, a limiting instruction concerning the proper use of the victim’s statements is almost always appropriate.
Category: Evidence, Uncategorized