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Objection! That’s Hearsay!

Most people have heard the word “hearsay” and know there is something wrong with trying to present “hearsay” evidence in court, but what actually does that mean?

Here is a legal definition: “Hearsay is an extrajudicial utterance offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted therein.” Sounds like a lawyer made up that definition, doesn’t it?

This is an example of hearsay: “John told me that the Defendant in this case was at the place where the crime was committed at the very time it took place.” It is “extrajudicial”– John did not say it in a courtroom.

The problem with this testimony is that the person on the witness stand has not demonstrated that the witness knows whether the statement is true. The person who made the original statement – “John” – is not on the witness stand and cannot be cross-examined. How is a jury to know whether John knows that the defendant was where the crime took place? Maybe he heard it from somebody else, or made it up because he hates the defendant.

A witness is not allowed to repeat something that the witness heard from somebody else because that type of statement is simply not reliable.

Therefore, hearsay is not admissible in American courts. (In England, the judges allow it, except in criminal trials, and it is up to a jury to decide whether it is not reliable).

There are many exceptions to this rule. Some statements made outside the courtroom can be admitted at a trial. An admission of a fact, or a statement that somebody makes that is against the person’s own interest, is admissible. Something in a public record can be put into evidence. What a sick or injured person says when the person is dying is admissible, since the courts have always thought people would not lie if they know death is imminent.

The official Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence contains more than two dozen exceptions to the hearsay exclusion.