Death of a Witness: Is the Case Against Giants Fan’s Alleged Attackers Hurt?

A wrench has been thrown in the case brought by the Los Angeles County District Attorney against two individuals charged with the brutal beating of San Francisco Giants fan, Bryan Stow, outside of Dodgers Stadium on Opening Day.

Louie Sanchez and Marvin Norwood face “. . . one count each of mayhem, assault by means likely to produce great bodily injury, and battery with serious bodily injury.”

On July 31, 2011, Matthew Lee, a man identified by sources close to the case as being an “important witness,” died.  Reports indicate that Lee and Stow attended the Opening Day game between the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers together.  Early reports indicate that Lee died as a result of an allergic reaction to nuts, although a cause of death has not been declared by the coroner’s office.

Although reports indicate that eyewitness and physical evidence exists other than that which could have been provided by Lee at trial, it remains to be determined how critical of a role Lee’s testimony would have served in the upcoming proceedings against Sanchez and Norwood.

It is likely that prior to Lee’s death, he provided statements to the Los Angeles Police Department and the District Attorney’s office.  Lee also likely made statements which were heard by others while witnessing the beating of Stow (if in fact, Lee witnessed the beating of Stow).

Will this testimony be admissible in court proceedings?

The hearings in this matter against Sanchez and Norwood are being held in Los Angeles Superior Court.  Thus, the California Rules of Evidence apply to testimony and evidence presented at these hearings.

Any statement which the District Attorney wishes to present regarding statements made by Lee would be considered hearsay evidence.  Section 1200 of the California Evidence Code, known as the “Hearsay Rule,” defines “hearsay evidence” as “. . . evidence of a statement that was made other than by a witness while testifying at the hearing and that is offered to prove the truth of the matter stated.”

Because Lee is now deceased, any statement made by him which is presented as evidence in a hearing against Sanchez and Norwood, would be one other than a statement made by Lee while testifying at the hearing.  Any statement made by Lee and presented by the District Attorney’s office would likely be offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted–namely, that Sanchez and Norwood committed the offenses for which they are charged.

Under Section 1200 of the California Evidence Code, hearsay evidence is inadmissible.

However, the California Evidence Code provides several exceptions to the hearsay rule, which may allow for the admission of previous statements made by Lee which would be offered by the Prosecution to prove that Sanchez and Norwood committed the crimes they are charged with against Stow.

1.  California Evidence Code Section 1240:  Spontaneous Statement

Section 1240 of the California Evidence Code allows for the admission of hearsay evidence if the statement is considered a “spontaneous statement,” meaning that it “Purports to narrate, describe, or explain an act, condition, or event perceived by the declarant; and was made spontaneously while the declarant was under the stress of excitement caused by such perception.”

Given that Lee attended the Opening Day game with Stow, one can presume that Lee was present when Stow was beaten.  Thus, it is possible that witnesses may testify as to what they heard Lee say while witnessing the beating or shortly thereafter.  Arguably, the witnessing of a friend’s brutal beating would constitute a situation causing stressful excitement.  If Lee made a statement while witnessing the beating, or shortly thereafter, narrating, describing or explaining the beating, Stow’s injuries or other related items, such a statement would likely be admissible.

2.  California Evidence Code Section 1242:  Dying Declaration

Another exception to the Hearsay Rule is the “Dying Declaration” exception.  This exception provides that, “evidence of a statement made by a dying person respecting the cause and circumstances of his death is not made inadmissible by the hearsay rule if the statement was made upon his personal knowledge and under a sense of immediately impending death.”

Here, it appears that Lee died as a result of an allergic reaction.  Thus, because his death was not brought about as a result of the beating of Stow, the dying declaration exception would not allow for admission of hearsay testimony made by Lee in this case.

3.  California Evidence Code Section 1292:  Former Testimony Offered Against Person Not a Party to Former Proceeding

It is unclear whether Lee provided testimony to a grand jury in this case.  If Lee did provide testimony in a grand jury proceeding, would such testimony be admissible in future proceedings in this matter?

California Evidence Code Section 1290 defines “former testimony” in relevant part as, “testimony given under oath in. . . another action or in a former hearing or trial of the same action. . .”

California Evidence Code Section 1292 provides that evidence of former testimony is not inadmissible hearsay if the declarant is unavailable as a witness.

Here, Lee is unavailable, since he is deceased.

However, the next requirement of section 1292, is that the former testimony was offered in a civil action.  Here, any such testimony would not have arisen in a civil action, since the current matter is a criminal case.  Additionally, because any such testimony given by Lee, if any exists, would have been given at a grand jury hearing, section 1292 would not allow for its admission.  This is due to the fact that defendants are not given the right to cross-examine witnesses at grand jury hearings.  This right and opportunity is a requirement for section 1292 to apply.

Thus, section 1292 does not allow for the admission of former testimony by Lee in this matter.

4.  California Evidence Code Section 1350:  Admissibility of Statement in Serious Felony Prosecutions

Section 1350 of the California Evidence Code allows for the admission of hearsay statements in “serious felony prosecutions.”  Arguably, the present case would be considered a serious felony prosecution.

Section 1350 requires that the person who made the statement be “unavailable” as a witness.  Because Lee is dead, he is unavailable.

However, six other requirements must bet met in order for this exception to apply.  The first requirement, that “there is clear and convincing evidence that the declarant’s unavailability was knowingly caused by, aided by, or solicited by the party against whom the statement is offered for the purpose of preventing the arrest or prosecution of the party and is the result of the death by homicide or the kidnapping of the declarant,” renders this exception unusable by the Prosecution.  As noted above, it appears that Lee died as a result of an allergic reaction.  Unless evidence shows that this allergic action was caused by actions taken by the Defendants in an effort to cause the homicide of Lee, then this exception cannot be used.

Effect on the Prosecution’s Case

Thus, it appears that the only hearsay exception applicable in this situation is the “Spontaneous Statement” exception.  Therefore, only statements made by Lee constituting spontaneous statements may be admissible during future hearings in this matter.  This fact will possibly limit the Prosecution’s ability to present its case.  However, it is unclear how important of a role that the totality of Lee’s statements played in the development of the Prosecution’s case.  Thus, it is possible that the admissibility of only Lee’s spontaneous statements will not hurt the Prosecution in proving its case against Sanchez and Norwood.

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