State top court rules on hearsay in criminal cases
Victim's statements admissible if they are not 'testimonial'
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Statements that crime victims give in the heat of an emergency to doctors and other non-police officers can usually be used by prosecutors in court, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday in its first look at recent U.S. Supreme Court restrictions on hearsay testimony. 

The 6-1 ruling upheld a Riverside County woman's conviction and 13-year prison sentence for aggravated assault on her 15-year-old son in 2001. The son did not testify during his mother's trial, but a doctor was allowed to tell the jury that the youth had said his mother deliberately slashed him in the face with a piece of broken glass. 

Such hearsay testimony -- a secondhand account of another person's description of events -- was subjected to new constitutional limits by the nation's high court in 2004. In the case of Crawford vs. Washington, the court ruled that allowing a victim's "testimonial statement'' during investigation of the crime to be admitted in court would violate a defendant's right to confront his or her accuser, because the victim was not available for cross-examination. 

The court did not define "testimonial statement,'' a term that judges around the nation have interpreted in varying ways since the ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court provided some guidance last year, when it ruled that a woman's statements during an emergency call to a 911 operator were not testimonial and thus could be used against her alleged abuser. 

Monday's case involved a May 2001 incident in which Lisa Marie Cage was charged with assaulting her son, whom the court referred to only as John F. 

Cage said her son had suffered the cut by accident. By the time of her trial, the son was living elsewhere and couldn't be located, said Deputy Attorney General Scott Taylor. 

The prosecution relied on statements by the surgeon who treated John for a deep gash to his face and a sheriff's deputy who questioned the youth as he was waiting in the emergency room. Both testified that John had told them his mother cut him while his grandmother held him down. 

The testimony was admissible under California law, which allows hearsay evidence of statements that crime victims make spontaneously in response to stressful events. 

In Monday's ruling, the state Supreme Court said the youth's statement to the surgeon had been properly admitted at his mother's trial, because the doctor's purpose in questioning him was to find out what had happened so the boy's wound could be treated. 

"There is no evidence that (the surgeon) was acting in conjunction with law enforcement, or that his question about the cause of John's injury had any evidence-gathering aim,'' Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the majority. He said the ruling might be different if a victim were being questioned by a child protective worker, for example, whose task was to gather evidence and report abuse to police. 

The court said John's statements to the sheriff's deputy were testimonial, and should have been excluded, because the officer had been questioning the youth as part of a criminal investigation with an eye toward the mother's possible prosecution. 

However, the court voted to uphold Cage's conviction, saying the deputy's wrongly admitted testimony was harmless because the doctor's statement and other evidence established that Cage had committed a deliberate assault. 

Justice Joyce Kennard dissented, saying the officer's testimony was much more detailed than the physician's and could have swayed jurors who might otherwise have believed that the youth was lying to punish his mother. 

The case is People vs. Cage, S127344. 

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