Wednesday, September 12, 2007

People v. Quitiquit (Cal. Ct. App. - Sept. 12, 2007)

I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with everyone in this one.

It's an evidence issue. Hearsay. Applied in a very sad domestic violence case. The question is whether the court should have admitted a hearsay statement made by Martina Villanueva to the police in which she told them that her husband of 15 years (with whom she was separated) had twisted her neck. Martina later died -- and the evidence indicates that she might have been really reluctant to testify anyway -- so the only way the statement comes in is if a hearsay exception applies.

Section 1370(a) of the Evidence Code allows hearsay like this if it explains how a physical injury was inflicted upon the declarant (yes), was made in writing or to a hospital or law enforcement official (yes), the declarant is unavailable (yes), and -- critically -- (1) was "made at or near the time of the infliction [] of physical injury," and (2) "was made under circumstances that would indicate its trustworthiness."

Justice McIntyre writes the majority opinion. He (alongside Justice O'Rourke) concludes that the statement here -- which was made seven weeks after the alleged physical injury -- did not qualify as being made "at or near the time" of that injury. And I think that's right. Justice Haller disagrees, but Justice McIntyre has the better of the argument, in my view, given the text, structure, history, and purpose of the exception.

That's all one needs to decide the case, since each of the requirements of Section 1370(a) need to be satisfied in order for the statement to be admitted. But Justice McIntyre goes on to also hold that the statement wasn't made under circumstances that would indicate its trustworthiness. But I think that's wrong, and would go the other way on that issue. You gotta read the entire fact section to get an accurate sense on this point, but I had the very strong feeling that Villanueva was telling the truth. She wasn't out for revenge, and didn't even really want to make the statement (or press charges). She had no motive to lie. She made this statement initially to her doctors, who had been unsuccessfully trying to figure out how the injury was caused and how to treat her, under circumstances that suggest that she revealed this information purely to help the staff try to diagnose what exactly had happened -- and hence treat her. And her statement was supported by both the medical and (eventual) autopsy records, which were consistent with her version, as well as various statements by two of her children about what they saw and heard on the night in question; in particular, Anthony's testimony that he heard Quitiquit getting angry on the day of the alleged abuse and his mother respond by saying something like "Go ahead. Do it," at which point he then heard Quitiquit "grunting" and Villanueva "gasp" for air and say "stop" in a frightened tone of voice, and shortly thereafter, heard Quitiquit leave.

To me, all of that is darn good evidence of trustworthiness. As well as some other stuff in the opinion as well. So I'd disagree with Justice McIntyre on this point. I think the opinion would have been better if this part had been left out -- or even had gone the other way.

In the end, all of the justices come out the same way, and suppress the statement and reverse. And I'd do the same thing. But for different reasons than each of them.

P.S. - Weirdly, the Attorney General makes an argument in this one that is totally backwards. Section 1370(a) says that one of the non-exclusive circumstances relevant to trustworthiness is "whether the statement was made in contemplation of pending or anticipated litigation in which the declarant was interested." The AG contends on appeal that Villanueva's statement was indeed "made in contemplation" of certain proceedings because she allegedly made the statement for the "purpose of making a paper trail so that she could get a protective order against him." But, dude, this argument goes the other way. The point of Section (a)(4)(1) is that if you're contemplating such an action then you have an interest in the statement and that it's not made under circumstances of trustworthiness. So the AG basically made an argument for the other side here. Now, Justice McIntyre ultimately says there's no evidence that this was Villanueva's purpose. Still. Make sure that you're reading the statute right, and don't accidentally make arguments that go the wrong way.