Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Reason for Hearsay Exclusion

Hearsay 'evidence' is generally excluded from trials. That is, with rare exceptions, you can't testify about what you claim someone said to you. One of the exceptions is if the hearsay explains some motivation of the case, or the person is in danger of immediate death (the so-called deathbed confession).

Most, if not all of us, can understand the reasons for not allowing it. Hearsay depends on the words of someone who is not present, and (in many cases) not alive to refute any claim about the content of that speech.

That's why it's so disturbing that the woman at the center of the Emmet Till murder case has had her testimony during the trial, in which her encounter with Till was described for that acceptable exception to the hearsay rule, challenged.

With a 'confession' which ONLY the author of a book that, once again, claims Till completely innocent of the circumstances that were said to have led to his execution by the husband of the woman involved.
 Still, no author save Tyson has ever interviewed Carolyn Bryant Donham. (Her ex-husband and brother-in-law are both dead.) “That case went a long way toward ruining her life,” Tyson contends, explaining that she could never escape its notoriety. His compelling book is suffused with information that Donham, over coffee and pound cake, shared with him in what he calls a “confessional” spirit.
Did she recant her testimony? The only words the author, Timothy Tyson, claims she said was, "That part's not right," in talking about her court testimony, an ambiguous statement at best. She apparently wrote a memoir of her life, which is locked up in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until 2036.

Certainly, someone can have a change of heart, or yearn for an opportunity to confess a deception as they near death. Jane Roe, of the famous abortion case, apparently did so (she was videotaped saying that she had faked her conversion). But, the ambiguous words of Bryant lead to some degree of interpretation.

Was her husband unreasonably jealous of Bryant, and - hearing that she had been talking to Till - killed him in a rage? Possible.

Did Till actually insult her by speaking crudely of sex, which she later told her husband about? Possible.

Was there no interaction with Till? Unlikely - even his supporters admit that Till had, at least, flirted with her.

In any case, none of the actions described above are worthy of a death, as Bryant herself said about the killing. Tyson does NOT say that Bryant made herself more clear that those four words, so - based on what she said at the time - we cannot say more plainly whether she lied in that interview, or was truthful - or, in fact just what happened.

And, that's why hearsay is not acceptable on which to base life and death decisions. It's simply too easy to mishear, misinterpret, or flat-out lie about.

It will be interesting to read the memoir when it is released for publication in 2036. Perhaps the ambiguities will be, finally, cleared up. Even so, it will be ONE person's account of what happened - the only survivor, at the time it was written - and, thus, regarded with a degree of skepticism.

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