Law School Case Brief
State v. Williams - 67 N.C. 12 (1872)
The admission of dying declarations is an exception to the general rule of evidence, which requires that the witness should be sworn and subject to cross-examination. The solemnity of the occasion may reasonably be held to supply the place of an oath. But nothing can fully supply the absence of a cross-examination. In consequence of this absence, such declarations are often defective and obscure. Hence, it is a duty to say that they should be received with much caution, and the rule which authorizes their admission should not be extended beyond the reasons which justify it. And this is the more important as such declarations, when received, have great, and sometimes undue weight with juries. If the declarant would not have been permitted to testify had he survived, either because he was too young to comprehend the nature of an oath, or was disqualified by infamy, or imbecility of mind, his dying declarations are inadmissible. Such declarations are admissible only to those things to which the declarant would have been competent to testify if sworn in the case. Consequently, if they be not the statement of a fact, but merely the expression of the opinion of the deceased, they are inadmissible. And so, if merely hearsay, or irrelevant.
The deceased was shot after dark in his house by someone standing outside. One of the defendants was indicted for his murder, and the other was indicted for being an accessory before the fact. During their trial, the State proposed to give in evidence the deceased's dying declarations. A witness testified that the deceased told her that one of the defendants shot him, but he did not see him. The trial court ruled that the declarations were admissible. A jury found defendants guilty. The defendants challenged the judgment.
Were the deceased’s dying declarations, as testified by a witness, admissible as evidence against the defendants?
The Court held that the words of the deceased did not purport and were not meant to state the identity of defendant with the assailant as a fact known through the senses. Consequently, the deceased's statements were inadmissible. According to the Court, the deceased accompanied each declaration that it was defendant who shot him with the qualification that he did not see defendant. The Court averred that the deceased appeared to have wished to exclude the conclusion that his opinion was anything more than one founded on an inference from facts and motives that he could have supposed to exist. For this reason, the Court was not at liberty to conjecture that the deceased could have heard defendant and identified him. Hence, the Court ordered a new trial.
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