Law School Case Brief
Harris v. Johnson (in Re Estate of Johnson) - 767 So. 2d 181 (Miss. 2000)
Miss. R. Evid. 804(b) reads as follows: (b) Hearsay Exceptions. The following are not excluded by the hearsay rule if the declarant is unavailable as a witness: (4) Statement of Personal or Family History. (A) A statement concerning the declarant's own birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, legitimacy, relationship by blood, adoption or marriage, ancestry, or other similar fact of personal or family history, even though declarant had no means of acquiring personal knowledge of the matter stated; or (B) a statement concerning the foregoing matters, and death also, of another person, if the declarant was related to the other by blood, adoption, or marriage or was so intimately associated with the other's family as to be likely to have accurate information concerning the matter declared.
Miss. R. Evid. 803(24) regarding statements not excluded by the rule against hearsay, regardless of whether the declarant is available as a witness, provides in relevant part that: A statement not specifically covered under any of the foregoing exceptions but having equivalent circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness, if the court determines that (A) the statement is offered as evidence of a material fact; (B) the statement is more probative on the point for which it is offered than any other evidence which the proponent can procure through reasonable efforts; and (C) the general purposes of these rules and the interests of justice will best be served by admission of the statement into evidence.
Robert L. Johnson died intestate at the age of 27 in Mississippi in 1938. Though he was an apparent indigent at the time of his death, he left behind numerous musical recordings. Thompson was the last surviving sibling of Johnson. Thompson died testate 45 years later in Maryland in 1983. She devised her entire estate, including all rights and claims to the works of Johnson, to her grandson and her half-sister in equal shares. In 1989, fifty-one years after Johnson's death, his estate was opened in the Chancery Court in Mississippi. Two years later, Johnson's estate received its first royalty payments. The administrator, Willis Brumfield, subsequently filed a petition to determine heirship. Claud L. Johnson answered the petition, claiming to be the illegitimate son of Johnson. Claud was born on December 16, 1931. The chancery court conducted an evidentiary hearing to determine heirship, wherein it adjudicated Claud to be the biological son and the sole heir at law of the decedent, Robert L. Johnson. Thompson's grandson and half-sister appealed.
Was the ruling on heirship proper?
The Supreme Court of Mississippi affirmed the trial court's judgment. It held that the trial court did not err by adjudicating Claud to be the biological son of decedent because several witnesses testified that it was common knowledge in the community that decedent was Claud's father, and a close friend of Claud's mother testified that she saw his mother and decedent engage in sexual intercourse around the time his mother conceived. Claud's mother was the declarant as outlined under M.R.E. 804(b)(4)(B). The court held that Claud's birth certificate was properly admitted into evidence because his mother had no interest in the outcome of the case, the information on the certificate went uncontested for nearly 60 years, and it was consistent with later testimony.
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