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What is 'hearsay' and why is it inadmissible in a felony trial?

Criminal trials are conducted according to strict procedural rules. One of the most important set of rules governs the admissibility in a trial of various types of evidence. These rules go by various names -- in Massachusetts, they are called the Guide to Evidence -- but they control the kinds of statements, exhibits and objects that can be presented to the jury in every type of trial, from felonies to minor traffic violations. One of the most complex rules is the so-called "hearsay rule."

Hearsay is a statement made by a person while that person is not testifying as a witness at trial and that is offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement. The main purpose of the hearsay rule is to preserve the adverse party's constitutional right to confront and question any witness call to testify against the party. A common example of hearsay is a witness who is called to testify that "Joe told me he committed the crime." If Joe is not in the courtroom, he cannot be cross-examined and the statement cannot be admitted into evidence to prove Joe's guilt.

The hearsay rule contains many qualifications and exceptions that are beyond the scope of this post. Nevertheless, some exceptions can be briefly mentioned. The statement of an adverse party is not hearsay. Some out-of-court statements are not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement, and therefore are not considered hearsay. For example, "Joe told me not to tell anyone about the crime" is not hearsay because Joe's out-of-court statement is not factual. The statement is offered to prove what Joe said because that statement may reflect upon Joe's guilt.

A solid command of the rules of evidence is part of every criminal defense. Sometimes, the prosecutor's entire case rests upon a single hearsay statement. If the defense can persuade the judge to exclude that statement, the entire case against the defendant may collapse.

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