One of the most important and most complex legal topics is also one of the most difficult legal topics to explain, largely because so few people hear about it or have to worry about it on a daily basis.
Recently, though, that has not been the case, as the media and political pundits have been talking about the concept seemingly non-stop over the past few months.
That concept is hearsay.
Hearsay: An Out-of-Court Statement Offered to Prove the Matter Asserted
Hearsay is difficult to comprehend not just because it is complex; it is also because it is a form of evidence, rather than evidence, itself.
At its most fundamental, hearsay in the legal field is a statement that is both:
- Made outside of the courtroom, and
- Being offered to prove exactly what the statement asserts.
An out-of-court statement is anything that someone says that was not said inside the courtroom. This happens anytime someone is on the witness stand and says something that he or she was told by someone else.
Imagine Clara is a witness to a burglary and says, “Michelle said that she saw people in the alleyway ahead.”
This is an out-of-court statement because we are hearing about what Michelle said. She isn't in the courtroom saying it, though.
Offered to Prove the Matter Asserted
Even more complicated is the issue of what an out-of-court statement is being used to prove. Statements made out-of-court are only hearsay if they are used to prove what they asserted, outside the courtroom.
Going back to the hypothetical burglary trial and Clara testifying that “Michelle said that she saw people in the alleyway ahead” – the statement would only be hearsay if it was used to prove that there were people in the alleyway. It would not be hearsay if the statement was used for other evidentiary purposes, like as evidence that Michelle was present, or as evidence of Clara's motive for pulling a pistol from her purse.
The Touchstone of Hearsay: Reliability
The whole point of hearsay laws is to make sure that the evidence that a court or jury hears in a case is reliable.
Hearsay law aims to keep unreliable evidence out of the courtroom so a jury does not get distracted by it and to prevent the jury from weighing seemingly important evidence that is, unbeknownst to them, inherently unreliable. By preventing hearsay evidence from being used, the law forces the original speaker – the person who made the out-of-court statement (Michelle, in the examples above) – to be there in court, testify, and be made available for the cross-examination that is the law's most powerful tool for finding the truth.
Joseph D. Lento: Criminal Defense in Philadelphia
This is only a broad overview of the world of hearsay law. Even if a particular statement is deemed hearsay, there are exceptions that mean it can still be reliable enough to make it to trial and be used as evidence.
Joseph D. Lento is a criminal defense lawyer who knows and understands how hearsay works. Contact him online or call his law office at (215) 535-5353 if you have been accused of a crime in Philadelphia.