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What is Hearsay?

Presidential hopeful Herman Cain says that allegations of sexual harassment are mere “hearsay.”  But what is hearsay?  Get Legal Lad’s take on this important, but complicated, rule of evidence.

By
Adam Freedman
November 25, 2011

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Today’s topic: Hearsay 

And now, your daily dose of legalese:  This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader.  In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer.  In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

What is Hearsay?

Astute reader Bill has written to me noting the tendency of people on TV shows to shout “Hearsay!” during courtroom scenes.  “I would like to know,” says Bill, “what ‘hearsay’ is all about.”  I was reminded of Bill’s email when I read about the allegations of sexual harassment directed at presidential candidate Herman Cain. At a recent news conference, Cain described the accusations against him as “hearsay.”

It’s true that Hollywood screenwriters love “hearsay.”  But it’s also true that hearsay is an important rule of evidence.  However, as I’ll explain in a moment, it’s also a very complicated rule, and the TV shows rarely do it justice, so to speak.

Hearsay is a Statement by Somebody Other Than the Witness

“Hearsay” is used in courtroom proceedings to describe any statement other than one made by a witness sitting in the witness stand in that very proceeding.  To illustrate the rule, imagine a witness who testifies “I saw the defendant kill Mr. Smith.” That is perfectly acceptable evidence: the witness is describing what he saw with his own eyes, and the defense can cross-examine him. 

But if a witness says “I heard Mr. Jones say that the defendant killed Mr. Smith,” that’s a hearsay statement.  Mr. Jones is not there in the courtroom, so the jury can’t get a good look at him and the defense lawyer can’t cross-examine him.

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