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What Is Hearsay Evidence?

Hearsay evidence is typically inadmissible in a court of law.
When someone gives testimony that can’t be proven, it is called anecdotal or hearsay.
Hearsay evidence cannot be presented to a judge during a formal criminal or civil trial.
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  • Written By: Alexis W.
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 22 August 2014
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Hearsay evidence refers to evidence provided "secondhand" in a court room. Hearsay evidence is excluded from court cases under the hearsay evidence rule. This means that hearsay evidence is inadmissible in a court of law.

When a court case is occurring, both the defendant and plaintiff present witnesses to help the judge or jury reconstruct the events that gave rise to the litigation or criminal trial. The accounts of the witnesses are designed to provide a more clear picture of what occurred and to help convince the court that either the plaintiff or defendant is right and entitled to win the case. Witnesses are presented both in criminal trials and civil trials.

There are certain limitations to what a witness can testify to. For example, expert witnesses can testify to what they believe may have happened in a case, but they must have sufficient qualifications to convince the court that they have the knowledge to make such conjectures about the case. The hearsay rule is one particular limitation on what witnesses, in general, can testify to.

Under the hearsay rule, a witness cannot testify about statements made outside of court. Essentially, this means that he cannot testify as to what anyone said, or was thinking, outside of the court room. The hearsay rule is set forth in Federal Rules of Evidence Article VIII.

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Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, hearsay statements are defined as any statements under "other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted." This means that if the statement was not made by the witness in court and is offered to prove the truth of whatever it is the witness is saying, it is not admissible. Under this rule, therefore, a witness cannot testify to anything anyone else said or was thinking, nor can he testify to anything he himself said if it was said out of court.

The premise behind the hearsay evidence rule is that people are unreliable and that statements made casually are not necessarily true and should not be submitted as evidence in a court of law. Under the common law system, such evidence cannot be presented to a judge or jury during a formal criminal or civil trial, although it can be presented in pretrial proceedings. The civil law system is more lax on hearsay evidence than the common law system, giving judges more latitude to consider hearsay evidence in deciding a case.

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Discuss this Article

JaneAir
Post 3

@strawCake - I see what you're saying. I actually do think that sometimes verbal statements should be admitted. I mean, what if someone said "I'm going to kill her" and the the person they were talking about turned up dead?

I think this would be circumstantial evidence against the person who made the statement. I know I would sure suspect them! But then, I'm not a lawyer or anything so I'm sure it's more complicated than that!

strawCake
Post 2

I've always wondered what the exact definition of hearsay was. I feel like lawyers are always yelling, "Objection! Hearsay!" on crime shows on television. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what that meant, but I'm glad now I know for sure.

I actually did not know that witnesses couldn't testify to statements made outside of the courtroom. I think this makes sense, because as the article said, people do often say things offhand. If those statements could be admitted in the courtroom, a lot of us would have to be way more careful about what we said.

Although, that might not be a bad thing in some cases.

GreenWeaver
Post 1

I understand why the admissibility of hearsay evidence is severely restricted, but sometimes testimony evidence can also be just as bad. I was watching a case on television the other day about a man that was convicted of armed robbery because not only did the jury learn of his prior criminal record, but the victim pulled him out in a line up.

The problem was that the victim that gave the eyewitness testimony was wrong. After serving several years in jail for a crime he did not commit, the defendant’s wife hired a private detective that finally figured out who the perpetrator really was.

The actual perpetrator was 5’7” tall while the defendant was 6’1”. Sometimes circumstantial evidence can taint the trial evidence in such a way that this too can also be prejudicial. There have been a lot of studies that have proven the unreliability of eyewitness testimony so I think that this should also be limited as well.

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