What Is Hearsay?

By Jed McKeehan

One of those weird legal terms that attorneys use a lot is the term, “hearsay.”  Attorneys throw that term around quite a bit, and it seems important.  And they sure do object to it a whole bunch during trials, but what does that term actually mean?

Hearsay is, “an out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted therein.”  That definition sounds fairly complicated, but what does it mean?  Well, lets work through some examples.

So, if a DA is trying to prove that Tom killed Jane.  They may have Bob testify and say, “Well, I know Tom killed Jane because Fred said he saw Tom do it.”  That testimony is hearsay.  Bob is testifying about what Fred said, and they are using Fred’s statement to prove that Tom killed Jane.  That kind of testimony is inadmissible.  Now if Fred is there to testify about what he saw, that is perfectly fine.  But without Fred there to testify, that testimony cannot be introduced in to evidence.

Remember, the legal world is not like the real world.  In the real world, we rely on hearsay all the time.  How do we know where someone lives?  Because someone else told us they live there.  How do we know who has the tickets to the big game this weekend?  Someone told us who has the tickets and that person found out from someone else who has the tickets.

How does this come up in the legal world?  In a divorce case, the client will say, “Well, her mom told me she used to use drugs.”  And I will say, “Okay, will her mom come and testify against her own daughter and say that?”  And the client will say, “Well, no.”  Okay, well then you cannot testify about that hearsay statement.

Or a parent may want to testify and say, “Well, the teacher told me the children had dirty clothes every time they came to school after staying with their dad.”  Again, that testimony is hearsay and is inadmissible.  If the teacher comes and testifies themselves about the children’s clothes, that is perfectly fine, but no one can testify about what the teacher told them as to the children’s clothes.

There are a whole bunch of exceptions to what hearsay is allowed though.  For example, you can always testify about what the other party in a case said.  That is called, “an admission by a party opponent.”

Let’s recap though.  Hearsay, which is very common in the real world, is generally inadmissible in legal proceedings.  Even though you may rely on hearsay every single day in your life, you generally cannot testify about hearsay statements in court.  You have to limit your testimony to information of which you have personal knowledge or what you personally saw or experienced, not what someone else told you.

 

Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties.  He works in many areas, including criminal, personal injury, landlord-tenant, probate, and estate planning. Visit attorney-knoxville.com for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.

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