Court Allows Inadmissible Hearsay; Conviction Reversed.


People v. Spitler (Michigan Court of Appeals, Unpublished Opinion)

Issues:

Hearsay; Whether the testimony of three witnesses was admissible under MRE 803(3); People v. Moorer; Cumulative effect of the errors

Summary:

On remand from the Michigan Supreme Court with instructions to consider whether the trial testimony of three witnesses was admissible under MRE 803(3), the court held that the trial court erred by admitting the evidence and again reversed defendant’s conviction of second-degree murder, and remanded. A jury found him guilty of second-degree murder for the shooting death of his brother, delivering marijuana, and felony-firearm. The victim’s friend (M) testified that he confided “that [defendant] had pulled out a gun on him in some type of argument in an angry way. He was just talking about being worried, being concerned not knowing what to do.” The second sentence was admissible under MRE 803(3). The victim’s statement that he was worried and concerned was clearly a statement as to then-existing emotion. But the first sentence concerned the victim’s recall of defendant’s action in threatening him with a gun. The prosecution essentially contended that the sentences were inextricably intertwined. However, assuming that was true, “under MRE 803(3), the jury still could not consider the statement for its substantive value and defendant would be entitled to an instruction to that effect. Because the trial court erroneously admitted the statement under other hearsay exceptions,” that instruction was not given. Moreover, “the prejudice inherent in this statement required the trial court to admit only [M’s] testimony that the victim was worried and concerned and exclude the victim’s statement that defendant threatened him with a gun.” The same problem existed with the testimony of another friend that the victim said “[t]hat his brother had kind of told him a secret about having a gun and [the victim] was pretty shocked by that . . . and concerned.” Finally, because another of the victim’s friends (F) did not testify to the victim’s statement of his then-existing mental or emotional state, F’s testimony as to the victim’s fear did “not implicate MRE 803(3).” This left only “the victim’s statement that defendant had a gun, which is plainly hearsay and inadmissible under MRE 802.”

The court also held that the errors were not harmless as their cumulative effect “was that the jury was presented with evidence that defendant had a gun and had previously threatened the victim with it.” The absence of limiting instructions posed “a serious risk that the jury would consider this evidence substantively, rather than limiting its consideration of the evidence” to its tendency to “show the victim’s fear of defendant.” These errors “tended to touch on defendant’s state of mind,” a dispositive issue at trial.

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