Evidence is a fascinating area of the law. It governs the types of facts and information that can be presented to the decisionmaker in a court of law. If a piece of evidence can be “admitted,” that means it can be put into the record, so that the decisionmaker can use the information to reach a conclusion. In movies or in the news, we often see how juries decide the monetary liability of a civil party or determine the guilt of a criminal defendant. Rules of evidence permit and constrain the things that a decisionmaker—whether individuals on a jury, or a judge on the bench—can consider during this process.
As a quick introduction, here are some of the key areas that an Evidence law school class, focused on the federal rules of evidence, will cover.
To determine whether evidence is admissible, we first ask: “Is it relevant” or “does it matter” to the outcome? Evidence can be used for many things, including proving an individual’s motive or one’s consciousness of innocence or guilt, bolstering or attacking the credibility of a claim, indicating the likelihood of an event, and much more. The rules on relevance are “evidence-friendly” in two ways. One, the rules define the term “relevance” broadly; two, they do not require the evidence to be disputed by the parties, nor require the evidence to be alone sufficient to support the point at issue. Additionally, there are specialized relevance rules that govern common scenarios involving settlement offers, statements made during negotiations, and insurance policies.
2. Hearsay rules
“Objection, hearsay!” encapsulates the idea that information an individual gets from another person, rather than knowing or experiencing it first hand, may be untrustworthy. The evidence rules state that if a statement is hearsay, it is not admissible in court unless it falls under an exception. A sizable part of the evidence course involves examining these myriad exceptions, such as a dying declaration, a statement against interest, business records, or certain inconsistent statements. Each exception reflects the judgment of rule writers that statements made in certain situations are unusually reliable and necessary, and thus admissible in court. This section of the course illustrates the careful balancing that evidence rules do to make available to the decisionmaker information that is both helpful and reliable.
3. Constitutional issues
Evidence law includes constitutional issues, especially in the criminal realm. Two involve the confrontation clause and compulsory process clause, which are both found in the Sixth Amendment. The confrontation clause states that criminal defendants have a right to cross-examine the witnesses testifying against them. The compulsory process clause says that criminal defendants have the right to call witnesses on their behalf, or that they have a right to put on a defense. These present important protections for criminal defendants, ensuring their ability to put on a robust and effective defense, by gathering evidence in his favor and disputing adverse pieces of information.
4. Expert and lay witness testimony
Often, lawyers call witnesses to testify. Lay witnesses testify on matters about which they have personal knowledge, and expert witnesses—such as medical professionals, professors, car mechanics—use their specialized skills, knowledge, or experience to explain what they believes happened in a certain case. To learn about this, you can listen to this podcast episode.
One recurring theme is that evidence that is relevant—that is helpful and convincing—can also create “prejudice.” This happens when a piece of evidence unfairly harms one party by evoking strong emotions in the jurors, leading them to confuse the issues, prompting them to decide on an improper basis, or encouraging them to punish someone for their past actions or future possibilities, rather than for the crime or allegation at hand. Evidence like that could involve gruesome photos, evidence of flight, contradictory statements made by the defendant, and probability calculations. The prejudice question also comes up often in handling character evidence.
The hearsay rules intend to give the decisionmaker as full of a picture as possible, while preventing emotions from taking over and minimizing any distractions that could interfere with the decision-making process. Thus, there is a constant question as to whether a piece of evidence would create “unfair prejudice” that “substantially outweighs” its “probative value.” This balancing is done by judges exercising their discretion. Impactful evidence can make a huge difference in the outcome of a trial or litigation, but it is important for advocates to understand how to effectively make and defend against arguments about prejudice.
This has been a very quick primer on the key topics in a law school Evidence class. There are many other issues and nuances that you will no doubt explore if you choose to take the class. I would highly recommend doing so, especially if you anticipate that your legal practice will involve advocating in courts in any capacity. I really enjoyed this class and got a lot out of it! I hope that you will feel the same.
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