In Tennessee, an ‘excited utterance’ is a specific exception to the hearsay rule of evidence. Generally, extrajudicial assertions of fact are considered hearsay cannot be introduced to prove those facts. Some exceptions apply. One of those exceptions in Tennessee is an ‘excited utterance,’ which is a statement relating to a startling event or condition made while the declarant was under the stress of the event or condition. Courts consider these kinds of hearsay statements sufficiently reliable to at least be heard by a jury (though the jury is certainly free to determine how much weight to afford the statement). In the recent case of State v Wells, W2014-00185-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 3-13-2015), the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the defense argument that the Defendant’s assertions of self defense made to an arresting officer met the requirements of this exception.
In the Wells case, the Defendant had been charged with first degree murder and ultimately convicted of only voluntary manslaughter in the stabbing death of a victim during an argument and physical confrontation. During the trial, the Defendant sought to introduce his out of court statements to the arresting officer asserting that he had acted in self defense and that the victim had been trying to kick out the Defendant’s eyeballs. The Defendant’s extrajudicial statement that he acted in self defense was indeed an assertion of fact which the defense sought to introduce in order to prove that fact. So it was a hearsay statement. Though the Defendant’s voluntary statements to police about the event would have been admissible if introduced by the State, under the ‘admission by a party opponent’ exception to the hearsay rule, that exception is only available to a party’s opponent, and not to the party who made the statement. So the Defendant had to find some other exception under which to argue its admissibility.
As the arrest and statement occurred on the morning after the evening in which the stabbing occurred, the defense argued it should be admitted under the excited utterance exception, being related to the arguably startling event of stabbing someone to death. But the trial court rejected that argument, concluding the statement was not made while under the stress of the stabbing but rather while under the stress of being arrested for a homicide and perhaps for the purpose of constructing a legal defense to criminal charges. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the trial court’s reasoning and affirmed the ruling that the exception did not apply.
The Defendant was of course free to testify and explain to the jury his recollection of the events in question and the reasons for his actions, and he did so in this case.
For more information on questions of evidentiary rules and exceptions in Tennessee Courts, contact Hindman & Associates.