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Evidence In Criminal Cases
Real evidence is a thing. Its existence or characteristics are considered relevant and material to an issue in a trial. It is usually a thing that was directly involved in some event in the case, such as a murder weapon, the personal effects of a victim, or an artifact like a cigarette or lighter belonging to a suspect. Real evidence must be relevant, material, and competent before a judge will permit its use in a trial. The process whereby a lawyer establishes these basic prerequisites (and any additional ones that may apply), is called laying a foundation. In most cases, the relevance and materiality of real evidence are obvious. A lawyer establishes the evidence’s competence by showing that it really is what it is supposed to be. Establishing that real or other evidence is what it purports to be is called authentication.
Evidence is considered “demonstrative” if it demonstrates or illustrates the testimony of a witness. It is admissible when it fairly and accurately reflects the witness’s testimony and is otherwise unobjectionable. Maps, diagrams of a crime scene, charts and graphs that illustrate profits and losses are examples of demonstrative evidence.
Evidence contained in or on documents can be a form of real evidence. For example, a contract offered to prove the terms it contains is both documentary and real evidence. When a party offers a document into evidence, the party must authenticate it the same way as any other real evidence, either by a witness who can identify the document or by witnesses who can establish a chain of custody for the document.
When people deal with documentary evidence, it is a good idea to consider these four potential pitfalls:
- Parol evidence
- Best evidence
The parol evidence rule prohibits the admission of certain evidence concerning the terms of a written agreement. Parol evidence is usually considered an issue of substantive law, rather than a pure evidentiary matter.
A party can authenticate documentary evidence in much the same way as it can authenticate other real evidence. Also, some kinds of documents are essentially self-authenticating under the FRE. Some of these are:
- Acknowledged documents to prove the acknowledgment
- Certain commercial paper and related documents
- Certificates of the custodians of business records
- Certified copies of public records
- Official documents
- Trade inscriptions
The best evidence rule states that when the contents of a written document are offered in evidence, the court will not accept a copy or other proof of the document’s content in place of the original document unless an adequate explanation is offered for the absence of the original. The FRE permits the use of mechanically reproduced documents unless one of the parties has raised a genuine question about the accuracy of the copy or can somehow show that its use would be unfair. Also under the FRE, summaries or compilations of lengthy documents may be received into evidence as long as the other parties have made the originals available for examination.
Character as Evidence
Character is a general quality usually attributed to a person. Character cannot be used to show that someone acted on a particular occasion in conformity with a particular character trait. On the other hand, habit can be used that way. A habit is a behavior; it is specific, regular, and consistently repeated. Occasionally, some character traits can be linked with a habit, so the distinction between the two can be hard to make at times.
In civil cases, evidence that a person has a character trait generally cannot be used to prove that the person acted in conformity with that character trait on a particular occasion. Evidence of character may be proved where it is an integral issue in a dispute or where a party puts character in issue. Evidence of character is used frequently in criminal trials during the sentencing stage to show that a convicted defendant merits a lesser or greater sentence or other penalty.
The rule against hearsay is deceptively simple and full of exceptions. Hearsay is an out of court statement, made in court, to prove the truth of the matter asserted. In other words, hearsay is evidence of a statement that was made other than by a witness while testifying at the hearing in question and that is offered to prove the truth of the matter stated. For example, Witness A in a murder trial claimed on the stand: “Witness B (the “declarant”) told me that the defendant killed the victim.” The definition of hearsay is not too difficult to understand. But the matter can become very confusing when one considers all of the many exceptions to the general rule against hearsay.
Even if a statement meets the requirements for hearsay, the statement may yet be admissible under one of the exceptions to the hearsay rule. The FRE contains nearly thirty of these exceptions. Most of them are generally available, although a few of them are limited to times when the declarant is unavailable.
There are twenty-four exceptions in the federal rules that do not require proof that the person who made the statement is unavailable. These are:
- Business records, including those of a public agency
- Certain public records and reports
- Evidence of a judgment of conviction for certain purposes
- Evidence of the absence of a business record or entry
- Excited utterances or spontaneous statements
- Family records concerning family history
- Judgments of a court concerning personal history, family history, general history, or boundaries, where those matters were essential to the judgment
- Learned treatises used to question an expert witness
- Market reports, commercial publications, and the like
- Marriage, baptismal, and similar certificates
- Past recollections recorded
- Recorded documents purporting to affect interests in land
- Records of religious organizations concerning personal or family history
- Records of vital statistics
- Reputation concerning boundaries or general history
- Reputation concerning family history
- Reputation of a person’s character
- Statements about the declarant’s present sense impressions
- Statements about the declarant’s then existing mental, emotional, or physical condition
- Statements in authentic ancient documents (at least 20 years old)
- Statements in other documents purporting to affect interests in land and relevant to the purpose of the document
- Statements made by the declarant for the purpose of medical diagnosis or treatment
- Statements of the absence of a public record or entry
- The “catchall” rule
The last exception, the so-called “catchall” rule, bears some explanation. This rule does not require that the declarant be unavailable to testify. It does say that evidence of a hearsay statement not included in one of the other exceptions may nevertheless be admitted if it meets these following conditions:
- It has sound guarantees of trustworthiness
- It is offered to help prove a material fact
- It is more probative than other equivalent and reasonably obtainable evidence
- Its admission would forward the cause of justice
- The other parties have been notified that it will be offered into evidence
If you have questions about evidence in criminal cases in San Diego contact us today at 619.405.0063 or visit San Diego Criminal Defense