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Feaster v. United States - 631 A.2d 400 (D.C. 1993)

Rule:

Under the prior recorded testimony exception to the hearsay rule, the proponent must establish that: (1) the direct testimony of the declarant is unavailable; (2) the former testimony was given under oath or affirmation in a legal proceeding; (3) the issues in the two proceedings were substantially the same; and (4) the party against whom the testimony is now offered had the opportunity to cross-examine the declarant at the former proceeding. Once these four elements have been established, it remains within the trial judge's discretion to exclude the evidence if its probative value is outweighed by its prejudicial effect. Evidence must be competent, relevant, and its probative value must not be outweighed by countervailing circumstances such as prejudice, confusion of issues, cumulative testimony, and undue delay. 

Facts:

The complainants were seven young boys from troubled homes whom defendant Michael A. Feaster took into his home and held out as his "godsons." Four of the complainants were under the age of 14 at the time of the incidents, which occurred between the summer of 1987 and early 1989. The complainants maintained that when they began staying at Feaster's home, he had treated them "nice," made sure that they went to school and did their homework, and bought clothes for them. However, this living situation ended on Feb. 25, 1989, when one of the boys, John, ran away from Feaster's apartment to his grandmother's home. Crying and upset, he told his grandmother that Feaster had sexually assaulted him. The following Monday, John was examined by a doctor. As a result of a police investigation, Feaster was charged with 41 counts of sexually assaulting the boys who lived at, or regularly visited, his home. At trial in District of Columbia superior court, the court denied Feaster's request to have the grand jury testimony of an absent witness admitted as evidence. Defendant was convicted, and he appealed, arguing that his U.S. Const. Amend. VI right to present a defense was violated when the trial judge excluded the grand jury testimony.

Issue:

Was there a violation of Feaster's guaranteed right to offer testimony of witnesses in his favor when the trial judge excluded the transcript of an absent witness' grand jury testimony?

Answer:

Yes, subject to the unavailability of the witness.

Conclusion:

The appellate court reversed Feaster's convictions and remanded the case. The court noted that the grand jury testimony was relevant to the material issue of Feaster's guilt or innocence. It was also competent evidence if the witness was unavailable. The trial judge could not properly conclude that the transcript testimony was excludible for likely juror confusion. The court ruled that unless the defense failed to demonstrate the unavailability of the absent witness for purposes of the prior recorded testimony exception to the hearsay rule, the trial judge erred in excluding the grand jury transcript of that absent witness' testimony. Because the error could not have been harmless—as it was reversible error to exclude directly exculpatory, facially exonerating" evidence—the court remanded the case to the trial court to make a finding on the witness' unavailability.

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