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State v. Walker

Decided: January 3, 1985.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN WALKER, DEFENDANT



Menza, J.s.c.

Menza

The State moves the court to permit the introduction into evidence of oral statements made by the victim several weeks after she was allegedly assaulted by defendant, on the basis that the statements are excited utterances. As a foundation for this contention, the State maintains that the statements are a product of a battered woman syndrome and therefore admissible as spontaneous utterances made in reasonable proximity to the event.

Defendant is charged with the crime of manslaughter. The State alleges that defendant assaulted his wife over a period of several months resulting in her sustaining serious injuries for which she was hospitalized and from which she eventually died. The State has no direct proofs of the assaults. Its proofs are

entirely circumstantial. They include certain oral statements made by the decedent while in the hospital prior to her death. At various times while in the hospital the decedent was overheard to say, "don't hit me," "don't hit me John," "I'll be good," "don't kick me," and statements of similar import. The statements were made by the decedent on numerous occasions commencing on the day of her admission and continuing until she died.

The State contends, at a Rule 8 hearing held for the purpose of determining the admissibility of the statements, that the oral statements made by the decedent were excited utterances because the decedent was "under the stress of a nervous excitement" when she made the statements. In accordance with that contention, the State introduced into evidence, for the court's review, the hospital records, police reports and various written statements taken of hospital personnel. It also presented the testimony of two physicians who treated the decedent at the hospital and a social worker who was offered as an expert on battered women. The physicians testified that the decedent was in a poor physical and mental condition during her period of hospitalization. They testified that her physical condition included numerous bruises about her body and a subdural hematoma. They described her poor mental state, explaining that at various times she was disoriented, withdrawn and confused.*fn1 In addition to the testimony of the physicians, the State presented the testimony of one Felicia Cohen. Cohen is a social worker who has had extensive experience dealing with

battered women.*fn2 Cohen was accepted by the court as an expert on the subject of battered women. (See State v. Kelly, 97 N.J. 178 (1984), holding in part that the battered woman syndrome is an appropriate subject for expert testimony.) Cohen did not speak to the victim prior to her death but did review the hospital reports, the written statements and the police reports. Based on this review, the witness formed the opinion that the victim had been a battered woman -- the worst she had ever seen -- and that she was suffering from a battered woman syndrome at the time she made the oral statements in the hospital. Cohen testified that the oral statements of the victim were made by her when she was in a state of extreme excitement engendered by a belief that she was at home with her assailant and being assaulted by him. The witness testified that this belief that she was experiencing an assault was triggered by her hearing a male voice or when she was physically touched. Cohen made it clear that, in her opinion, the utterances of the victim were not fabricated nor deliberate statements but were in fact spontaneous ones, the product of her legitimate belief, at the time they were made, that she was being assaulted by her assailant.

Evid.R. 63(4), spontaneous and contemporaneous statements, states:

A statement is admissible if it was made (a) while the declarant was perceiving an event or condition which the statement narrates, describes or explains, or (b) while the declarant was under the stress of a nervous excitement caused by

such perception, in reasonable proximity to the event, and without opportunity to deliberate or fabricate.

The rule is an exception to the hearsay rule and is premised on the proposition that a statement made while a person is under a state of excitement caused by the perception of a startling event or condition, is one which lacks the element of deliberateness and therefore has a high degree of reliability ...


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