Hearsay; State of Mind Exception

Com. v. Fitzpatrick, 204 A.3d 527 (Pa. Super. 2019), allocatur granted Feb. 3, 2020, appeal docket 6 MAP 2020

The issues in this first degree murder appeal arise because the trial court allowed the admission into evidence of a note written by the victim at an unknown time before her death that said: ”If something happens to me – JOE.” Her husband, appellant Joseph Fitzpatrick, was convicted of her murder. The trial court admitted the evidence under the state of mind exception to the hearsay rule. The Superior Court affirmed, reasoning that the note indicated the victim’s state of mind, and was not offered for the truth of the matter asserted:

The note was admissible over the hearsay objection because it tended to establish the victim’s then-existing belief, i.e., her state of mind, which was relevant to show the ill will that the victim perceived from Fitzpatrick, and, by implication, that their marriage was not going well. The note was thus not offered for the truth of the matter asserted and therefore was not hearsay. See Commonwealth v. Puksar, 740 A.2d 219, 225 (Pa. 1999) (“Statements are admissible to establish ill-will or motive where they are not being offered for the truth of the matter contained therein”); see also Commonwealth v. Brown, 648 A.2d 1177, 1182 (Pa. 1994) (stating out of court statement that is not offered for truth but “only for the fact that it was made,” is not inadmissible hearsay).

Slip Op. at 8.

However, the trial court never instructed the jury that the note was not offered for its truth.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to address both issues, phrased as follows:

 (1) Whether a note written by a victim of a homicide at some unknown time before the author ‘s death saying “if something happens to me — Joe” is admissible under the state of mind exception to the ban on hearsay as embodied in Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 803(3)?

 (2) Where inculpatory hearsay is improperly admitted against an accused, may a reviewing court dismiss the claim by averring the evidence was not offered for its truth if the jury was not so instructed and the statement was instead argued for its truth and is core to the prosecution case?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.