NJ Supreme Court Holds Admission of Dying Declaration Does Not Violate the Confrontation Clause

On May 10, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of State v. Williamson, No. A-65-19. The appellant in the case was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being convicted of the aggravated manslaughter of A.B. The record established that A.B. was shot in a housing complex in Newark, New Jersey in 2014. The shooting stopped A.B.’s heart and rendered her a quadriplegic. She was revived by EMS on scene and, following surgery, was informed of her critical condition by the attending physician. A.B. was also informed she could die.

Subsequently, a detective visited with A.B. Because A.B. was unable to speak, the detective elicited a non-verbal statement wherein A.B. identified Kanem Williamson as the person who shot her. A.B. passed away several months later.

At Williamson’s trial, the Prosecution offered A.B.’s statement into evidence under the “dying declaration” exception to the rule against hearsay. In addition, the Court concluded that admission of A.B.’s statement did not violate the Confrontation Clause of the New Jersey or United States Constitutions. Williamson was convicted of Aggravated Manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years in prison subject to the 85% parole disqualifier of the No Early Release Act (NERA). The appellate division affirmed.

The N.J. Supreme Court Found A.B.’s Statement Was a Dying Declaration

In New Jersey, hearsay (an out-of-court statement) is not admissible at trial unless an exception to the rule against hearsay applies.

The dying declaration exception to the hearsay rule is codified in Rule of Evidence 804(b)(2), which states that, “[i]n a criminal proceeding, a statement made by a victim unavailable as a witness is admissible if it was made voluntarily and in good faith and while the declarant believed in the imminence of declarant’s impending death.” The exception is based on the belief that a person making such a statement is highly unlikely to lie.

Because of A.B.’s injuries, as well as her awareness of the severity of her condition (including the possibility that she could die), the Supreme Court concluded her statement to law enforcement was a “dying declaration” under Rule 804(b)(2).

The N.J. Supreme Court Found that the Statement did not Violate the Confrontation Clause

The Confrontation Clauses of the United States and New Jersey Constitutions protect the right of a criminal defendant to be confronted by his or her accusers in Court and to cross-examine any testimony they may offer. The admission of hearsay (an out-of-court statement) – even if admissible under the Rules of Evidence – can be in direct conflict with the right of Confrontation.

Since 2004, Courts have looked to the nature of an out-of-court statement to determine whether its admission will violate the Confrontation Clause. If a statement was “testimonial” at the time it was made, the Confrontation Clause prohibits its use unless the declarant is unavailable, and the defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine the declarant. If the statement was non-testimonial, its admission does not violate the Confrontation Clause.

The New Jersey Supreme Court did not analyze A.B.’s statement as testimonial or non-testimonial. Rather, the Court concluded that a Dying Declaration was a “general rule of criminal hearsay law” that existed prior to the adoption of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Because of this, the Court concluded that a dying declaration is itself an exception to the Confrontation Clause and accordingly affirmed Williamson’s conviction.

At Levin & Javie, we take hearsay seriously, especially when it comes to preparing the right defense for our clients. In a case like this, we would look at the evidence, examine the nature of the statement (testimonial vs. non-testimonial), and devise our defense accordingly. To learn more about how we can help with your particular situation, give us a call at (267) 497-8889 or submit an online contact form on our website.