Should Hearsay Rule Be Applied Where Constitutional Rights Directly Affect the Ascertainment of Guilt ?
In Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 35 L. Ed. 2d 297, 93 S. Ct. 1038 (1973), another individual, McDonald, who was not charged with the offense, had signed a sworn confession to having committed the murder and made unsworn statements to others in which he admitted committing the murder.
The defendant was permitted to call McDonald as a witness and to introduce the sworn, written confession but, at trial, McDonald denied committing the murder and recanted the confession.
Under Mississippi's "voucher" rule of evidence, the defendant was prohibited from thereafter impeaching McDonald either by cross-examination or by use of his prior unsworn statements.
Mississippi's hearsay rule did not permit McDonald's prior inconsistent, but unsworn, statements to be used for substantive purposes and did not contain an exception for hearsay statements against penal interest.
The United States Supreme Court held that the testimony rejected by the trial court "bore persuasive assurances of trustworthiness and thus was well within the basic rationale of the exception for declarations against interest." Chambers, 410 U.S. at 302, 35 L. Ed. 2d at 313, 93 S. Ct. at 1049.
The Court noted that the recanted confession "was in a very real sense self-incriminatory and unquestionably against interest." Chambers, 410 U.S. at 301, 35 L. Ed. 2d at 312, 93 S. Ct. at 1048.
The Court explained that McDonald stood to benefit nothing by disclosing his role in the shooting to any of his three friends and he must have been aware of the possibility that disclosure would lead to criminal prosecution.
In addition, McDonald was present in the courtroom, was under oath, and could have been cross-examined by the State about his prior statements.
The Court held that "where constitutional rights directly affecting the ascertainment of guilt are implicated, the hearsay rule may not be applied mechanistically to defeat the ends of justice" and concluded that the exclusion of this evidence denied the defendant a fair trial. Chambers, 410 U.S. at 302, 35 L. Ed. 2d at 313, 93 S. Ct. at 1049.