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Issues In NY Criminal Law--Vol. 2, #1©

Issue: The scope of the state of mind exception to the hearsay rule

CONSIDER the following exchange that might occur between a district attorney and a prosecution witness at trial:
Prosecutor: Officer, did you have a conversation with the bystander?
Officer: Yes.
Prosecutor: What did she tell you?
Defense attorney: Objection, hearsay.
Prosecutor: Your Honor, this is the "state of mind" exception to the rule against hearsay. It is not offered to show the truth of the matter. It's offered to show this witness's state of mind at the time of the conversation and to explain his subsequent actions.
Should the evidence be admitted? No. It is improper, and the argument as to admissibility is a canard. It is hearsay, and the state of mind exception is inapplicable. Yet it is surprising how often the argument is made, and accepted in court.
Take, for example, People v Emick, a manslaughter case in which battered women's syndrome was introduced as a defense. The prosecution offered testimony of several witnesses, including a worker at a domestic violence shelter as well as that of a friend of the defendant. The prosecutor at trial was allowed to introduce evidence of a conversation between these two witnesses. The Fourth Department found this to be error.
As to the argument that it was not offered for its truth, the court stated: “This argument is without merit The People do not explain, nor can we conceive of, how the jury could have possibly been enlightened as to the climate of the evening by Meyers' statements without necessarily accepting them as true. At best, these statements were offered to show Meyers' state of mind on the night before the shooting."
As to the state of mind argument, the appeals court noted, it was improper. The witness's state of mind was irrelevant Emick, 103 AD2d 643, 481 NYS2d 552 (4th Dept 1984) See also, People v. Selver, 187 AD2d 683, 590 NYS2d 248 (2d Dept 1992); Handling a Criminal Case in New York (West 1999-2000), sec 18:139.

This specious argument for admissibility has been used to justify admitting testimony by the defense as well. For example, in, People v Seit, a murder case, the defense offered the testimony of a 911 call made by the defendant’s son, which was placed during the shooting in question. During the call, the son had stated that there was someone with a gun at the scene. The basis for admission was the state of mind exception.

But, noted the Second Department, "the son's state of mind was totally irrelevant. Rather, it was the defendant’s state of mind which was at issue during the trial, and the son's statement to the 911 operator was not relevant to or probative of that matter." The court held the evidence was properly excluded. Seit, 204AD2d 363, 611 NYS2d 875 (2d Dept 1994), order aff’d 86 NY2d 92, 629 NYS2d 998 (1995).

"0 brave new world,
That has such people in’t!"
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
INTERESTING decision: People v Coulter, 182 Misc2d 29, 697 NYS2d 498 (Dist Ct 1999): admissibility of Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy in EWOC case.
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