Statements Against Interest






In this paper, an examination is made on the case Williamson v United States, 512 U.S. 594 (S.CT. of the United States 1994) and the issues regarding statement against interest as it relates to the hearsay rule and FRE 804(b) (3) are discussed at length. In addition, the details of the case are given detailing how Harris, Williamson’s employee, was caught by a sheriff transporting cocaine and how in his interrogation by a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) named Walton, he implicated Williamson as his accomplice, therefore exposing Williamson to a legal suit that eventually led to legal repercussions against the latter party. Williamson appealed the District Court’s ruling in the court of Appeal, which led to the interpretation of Rule 804(b) (3) by different judges. The interpretations by Justice Kennedy, Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg are included in this paper. It is noted that the judges also wanted to establish to what extent hearsay statements were admissible in a court of law since Rule 804(b) (3) was not explicit about it. This paper goes further to give the ruling of the court of appeal and cites other similar cases and the rulings held in those cases. It also details the ongoing debate on the admissibility of collateral statements.

Statements against Interest

            Statements against interest are those statements that an individual abstains from making especially in the court of law if they will make him/her seem guilty. In the case of Williamson v. United States, 512 U.S. 594, Harris declined from making statements that would incriminate Williamson in the court of appeal. Federal Rule of Evidence 802 states that hearsay is not admissible in court but there are exceptions that are contained in Rule 804(b) (3). These are the exceptions: first, the statement made must be contrary to the declarant’s interest probably subjecting him to civil liability, or even to render an earlier claim that the declarant had made of another person invalid. It should also indicate that the person had no reason to issue the statement in the first place if he did not believe it to be true. The rationale is that people rarely make bad statements about themselves unless they believe them to be true (Amar & Oakley, p. 283).

In Williamson v. United States, 512 U.S. 594, Harris, Williamson’s employee was stopped by a sheriff as he drove and during the search of the car he was driving, the sheriff discovered 19 kilograms of cocaine. Harris was arrested and interviewed on phone by Donald Walton, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officer. During the interview, he confessed that the cocaine was from Williamson and that he was delivering it to a particular dumpster. The luggage had Williamson’s sister’s address and there was an envelope in the glove compartment that had Williamson’s girlfriend’s address. When Walton arrived in person to interview Harris, Harris said that prior to that day he had rented a car and gone to Fort Lauderdale to meet Williamson. He got the cocaine from Williamson acquaintance, who gave him instructions to deliver it in a dumpster, get back to his car and drive away. One learning that Walton was organizing a planned delivery; he denied his earlier statements saying that he had to lie since he was afraid of Williamson. He said that the truth was that Williamson was driving ahead of him and after seeing the sheriff checking his car he must have driven off therefore making it impossible for them to make a controlled delivery. He also said he had lied concerning the dumpster, the Cuban and the note.

Williamson was convicted for possessing cocaine with intentions of distributing it in and out of the country. Harris refused to testify on Williamson’s case even when promised immunity. Therefore, the court used Walton’s narration of Harris’ statement as the basis for their judgment. The ruling supported Rule 804(b) (3) on statements against interest. It was argued that first Harris’ initial statements were against his penal interest, meaning that he had incriminated himself in his earlier statements. Secondly, Harris was unavailable because he had chosen to keep quiet though he was under oath and third the circumstances prevailing like Williamsons documents found in the car were sufficient to support Harris prior statements, giving a reason for Williamson to be guilty. Williamson went further to appeal on the bases that Harris statements did not only violate the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment but also Rule 804(b) (3). The court of appeal affirmed the earlier ruling citing the following reasons: IIA, which stated Fed. Rule Evid. 802 on hearsay rule. They explored the dangers of depending on hearsay since it was subject to lies, misconceived events and words or even faulty memory. They went to say that outside the courts there was absence of the oath to ensure truthfulness, the jury that noted the non-verbal communications was also absent and also their was no cross examination to establish the exact words said.

Though there were all these disadvantages of depending on hearsay the court went further to say that some statements were less prone to distortion an others citing and example self- inculpatory statements. For example, in the case involving Harris, he had exposed himself to legal liability by agreeing that he was in the business of selling cocaine. They went further to examine Federal Rule of Evidence 801(a) (1) which defines oral or written assertions. They ruled that the whole statement of Harris was admissible because it broadly contained both self- inculpatory and non self-inculpatory comments made by him. The court went further to say that the thing Harris had said in the first place was wrong since he had confessed to be lying. Since some parts of Harris’ statement were self-exculpatory, the generalization of the Rule 804(b) (3) was not going to apply. They argued though the self-exculpatory statements were made in proximity with the self-inculpatory statements, the validity of the self-exculpatory statements could not be measured on the bases of such proximity. With these facts in hand, the court went further to disagree with Justice Kennedy’s ruling that generalized Rule 804(b) (3). The court went further to interpret Rule 804 (b) (3) stating clearly that it did not accept self-exculpatory statements that were said in the broader narrative of self-inculpatory statements.

The court said that though the Confrontational clause could make statements said in the same narration with self-inculpatory statements admissible, they said ambiguity of the language should not be inconsistent with Rule 804 (b) (3). Justice Kennedy’s argument was that third party confessions that implicated the accused and were said against the third party’s penal interest were admissible in ruling this he had based his judgment on the ruling of the case: Douglas v. Alabama, 380 U. S. 415 (1965), and Bruton v. United States, 391 U. S. 123 (1968). He said that the statements should be gotten out of the declarations against interest. The circumstances surroundings such statements should also be looked into. He insisted that though statements by a declarant admitting guilt on the part of the declarant and going further to implicate another person could be motivated by the need to solicit pity from the authorities by giving an impression of big and small fish in the market, there could also be possibilities of truth. This was more so if the person implicated was an acquaintance. In the case of Douglas v. Alabama, Lyod implicated Douglas in a crime of attempted murder. Lyod had already been convicted of the crime and wanted to appeal. Since any self-inculpatory statements would put him in an unfavorable situation, his lawyer advised him not to say any self-inculpatory statements when testifying in Douglas’ case. Following the lawyer’s advise, he kept quiet and the solicitor took about his prior confession read it sentence by sentence to him each time asking him if the words said were his but Lyod kept quiet. The court later ruled that the petitioner, Douglas was guilty but Douglas petitioned and his petition was affirmed (Amar & Oakley, p. 283).

Justice Kennedy’s focus was the exception in rule 804(b) (3) that allowed for the use of the statement if it was against the penal interest of the declarant and that it would most likely subject him to criminal liability. He also argued that the declarant had gone further to withhold the remarks to protect the defendant, which could only mean what he had said in the first place was true. On the admissibility of collateral statements, Justice Kennedy stated in his contribution that Rule 804(b) (3) allowed for their use citing three reasons. First the Advisory Committee note, second the exceptions by the common law on hearsay and third the presumption that the congress only enacted statutes that had effect. The Advisory committee’s Note allowed for some collaterals to be admissible when they said:

Ordinarily the third-party confession is thought of in terms of exculpating the accused, but this is by no means always or necessarily the case: it may include statements implicating him, and under the general theory of declarations against interest they would be admissible as related statements” (Kirkpatrick et al., p.1338).

This note clearly stated the collateral statement was admissible.

The court’s problem was that Rule (b) 3) is silent on the admissibility of collateral statements therefore making it uncertain on the rule used by the Advisory committee. In his contribution Justice Kennedy pointed out the fact that they relied on the Advisory committees Note in case the law was silent on a particular issue therefore the he based his judgment on the note. He went further to say that even if the Advisory Committee Note had not stated on what to do with the collateral statements, he would not have ignored all the statements but he would have gone ahead to consider those that were self-inculpatory. He also argued that common law allowed for the use of all evidence available and therefore there was no reason for Rule 804(b) (3) to be an exception. Lastly, Justice Kennedy said that the statements that were against penal interest were meant to be admissible by Rule 804(b) (3) because the Congress definitely intended the law on self-inculpatory statements to have effect. He therefore insisted that the Congress would never have made a law that would make all the collateral statements ineffective since this would definitely disqualify self-inculpatory comments.

The language used by Justice Kennedy was found to be unclear by the court of appeal and the points by the advisory committee were found to be contradictory. The advisory committee said that:

A certain latitude as to contextual statements, neutral as to interest, giving meaning to the declaration against interest seems defensible, but bringing in self-serving statements contextually seems questionable… “Admitting the disserving parts of the declaration, and excluding the self-serving parts . . . seems the most realistic method of adjusting admissibility to trustworthiness, where the serving and disserving parts can be severed” (Kirkpatrick et al., p. 1337).

The court went further to say it did not share in Justice Kennedy’s fears that the courts’ reading of the rule on hearsay made it not to have an effect. But the court went on to quote an example where self-exculpatory statements said in the broad context of self-inculpatory statements would go further to implicate the on implicated in the self-exculpatory statements. The court gave an example of a person who said I killed Mr. X and went further to name his accomplices in that kind of crime. In this case it shows the defendant had knowledge on the killings or even better if there was another witness who had seen the two drive away together after the killings. The thing was to be noted in this example were the circumstances in which the statements were made looking deeply in to the penal interest of the declarant. The question would be if the statements were against his penal interest solely or if he was hiding something and if a reasonable person would implicate himself in such a crime. In Harris’s case, his statements on his knowledge that he was carrying cocaine were admissible since he had forgone the penal interest of arguing he had no knowledge that he was carrying cocaine. Other part especially those implicating Williamson were to protect his penal interest by soliciting for mercy from the authorities or even immunity so that he could help trap Williamson.

Justice Scalia of the court of appeal differed with Justice Kennedy’s opinion. She went further to say that she did not fathom Justice Kennedy view on statements against penal interest. She insisted that when deciding whether the statements made were against penal interest, the dialogue should be well analyzed and facts as to whether the declarant exposed himself to criminal liability should be established. She defined the term “statement” as stated in Rule 8704(b) (3) as only allowing remarks that were self-inculpatory therefore distinguishing it with the other generalizations as Justice Kennedy had defined it. She went further to explain that a declarant’s statement would not be transformed by a statement against penal interest to making it inadmissible because he implicated another person in his self-inculpatory remarks. She set the base line as whether the remarks made met the rule. Justice Ginsburg, with whom Justice Blackmun, Justice Souter, and Justice Stevens join concurred with Justice Scalia’s agreement. They all argued that the rule did not accept for generalizations that incriminated another person. The held the courts ruling that stated that a statement against penal interest “does not allow admission of non-self inculpatory statements, even if they are made within a broader narrative that is generally self-inculpatory.”

Justice Scalia went ahead to say that it was inappropriate for Walton to read Harris’ statement since they did not adhere to Rule 804 (b) (3). She said that Harris’s statements though self-inculpatory, had elements of self-serving declarations. Harris’s crime could have earned him 12 years in prison and if he had taken the choice of denying the presence of cocaine, he would have lost the chance to appeal. To keep the chance open, he went further to implicate a Cuban and Williamson. In his statement that was taken by Walton, he named Williamson severally as the owner of the cocaine. He went further to say that he was just transporting it for him and he had instructions to leave it in a dumpster. Harris’ second statement was no better since it went further to incriminate Williamson therefore removing the blame from him and therefore putting it wholly on another person. These facts therefore made Harris’ statements admissible.

Justice Ginsburg said that Harris’ statements were  not admissible at all citing that if the court considered it improper for Walton to read Harris’ statement then it would definitely mean that the statements were inadmissible. Also since the court could not take back what had already been said, then it was necessary a mistrial to be declared. He also brought out the idea that the statement read by Walton could be to further conspiracy. This was ruled out because the base for reading Harris’ prior statement was Rule 804(b) (3) on Hearsay and not Rule 801(d) (2) (E) the co-conspirator rule.

The issue of admissibility of hearsay comments has been on for a long time and no specific decision has been reached. Dean Wigmore favored admissibility greatly stating that, “the statement may be accepted, not merely as to the specific fact against interest, but also as to every fact contained in the same statement” (Kirkpatrick et al., p. 1340). His reason was that the statements were said in honesty therefore making it fair to go ahead and accept other self-exculpatory statements. He also insisted the principle behind the rule was that reasonable people did not make self-inculpatory statements unless they believed them to be true. Dean McCormick contributed to the same debate but his approach to admissibility of self-exculpatory statements was stricter stating that for collateral remarks for a neutral character could be admissible but those for a character who sought to lay the blame on another person should be excluded. For example when a declarant says, “Mark and I killed the shopkeeper,” the phrase “Mark and” are neutral hence admissible but when a declarant says “Mark, not I, killed the shopkeeper; the words are self serving therefore making his statements inadmissible.

Professor Jefferson even took a stricter approach than the two saying reliability of a statement against self-interest should only be accepted if the statement is actually proved to be against self-interest. Therefore, under his approach Jefferson did not accept both the self-serving comments and the collateral neutral ones. Though statements against pecuniary, proprietary, legal and penal interest are exempted on hearsay rule, the rule does not go further to state whether collateral neutral statements or self-serving statements should be considered. This lack of guidance has left the courts to take the more strict approach of not admitting any collateral neutral or self-serving statements. The court goes further to adopt the provisions in Rule 804(b) (3) that allows only the use of self-inculpatory remarks from an entire statement by the declarant. Congress can a time want to use the self-exculpatory statements but in most cases the court insists that the language in the rule on hearsay is not so ambiguous that it allows for admissibility of such statements. Therefore, this has been the position most courts have followed in dealing with hearsay statements.

The court of appeal vacated the judgment, and remanded the case due to the above statements that look into the applicability of the Rule. Its ruling was restricted to Rule 804(b) (3) which only allows self-inculpatory statements and not all the collateral comments to be used as hearsay evidence. This ruling therefore ensured Williamson’s freedom. Hearsay evidence has several exceptions when the declarant is unavailable as is the case with Harris. First it defines an available declarant as one who has an excepted from testifying on the subject matter by a ruling of the court of law. Secondly, if the declarant persists on not testifying on the subject matter even after the court has ordered him to testify. Thirdly, a declarant who says that he has lost memory on the subject matter. Fourthly, a declarant who is unable to attend the proceedings due to death, disability, madness or sickness and lastly if the declarant is absent and the court is unable to reach him. If the declarant is unavailable then the following can not be used against him; his earlier testimony that is evidence given in a former hearing of the case or another case but with the aim of making the prior accusation to the defendant. Statement against interest, a statement that would expose the declarant to criminal liability, other exceptions the court has not agreed on, statement written under the belief of impending death. These are statements the statements by the declarant because he believed there would be homicide. Statement of family or personal history which could include the declarant’s place of birth, date of birth, parents name, marriage or divorce even though it is evident the declarant had no way of obtaining such information or forfeiture by wrong doing whereby the declarant fails to appear in court due to the allegations he had made.

Hearsay is information that is gathered by a person from another person, on an event, that the one being narrated to had no prior knowledge of. In USA hearsay cannot be used as evidence in court unless it is inculpatory and exculpatory remarks made to the investigator are not considered unless the declarant testifies of their validity in the court. This explains why Walton’s remarks were discredited by the court of appeal. Hearsay remarks have to be examined to identify if in the first place they were said against self-interest. An example to show if the statements were against self-interest can be established in the case United States v Guzman (1st Cir. May 3, 2010) (No. 08-1693). In this case, defendant Guzman was charging with the deaths of two people, which occurred when he burnt an apartment. Cruz, Guzman’s friend, had agreed to burn the apartment after entering into disagreements with the owner of the apartment. The two had been convicted of the crimes without considering any hearsay evidence. Guzman sought to use Cruz’s two statements that were said against Cruz’s self-interest to show that Cruz had burnt the apartment alone.

The challenge was rejected by the First Circuit stating the omission of the hearsay that stated that Cruz had been told to start the fire was in order, after Cruz’s confession, Cruz had gone further to deny that he had started the fire and said that the person who started it was not paid. The First Circuit said that the statement could be admitted if the declarant was un available, when the declarant made the statement he was aware that it could expose him to criminal liability, that anyone in the declarant’s position would not have made the remarks unless they were true, since the statement exposed the declarant to criminal liability and was aimed at setting one of the accused free, the circumstances under which the statement was said was going to be looked into.

The First Circuit’s response was that “The district court did not abuse its discretion in granting the government’s motion in limine on these statements, based on the arguments the parties put forth in their motions. The government argued to the court that the statements were not against Cruz’s penal interest; Cruz denied involvement in the fire. Guzman argued that Cruz’s statements in this exchange were against penal interest because they showed that someone wanted him to set the fire and that he knew that whoever did set the fire did not get paid for it. But those statements were not inculpatory and not against Cruz’s penal interests” (Amar & Oakley, p. 345). Though this case was admissible, Guzman was later found to be guilty since the statements that were left out by the Districts court in determining whether Guzman was guilty were not vital and even without the self-inculpatory statements from Cruz Guzman was still guilty. This case brings out the importance of examining the importance of self-exculpatory statements since in some cases, they may lead to the other culprit or they may be a lie. Other witnesses come in handy in determining such a case, and if the declarant and the defendant were accomplices who were seen by a third party in the scene of the crime then the self-exculpatory comments could be used as it happened in this case. The contributions on admissibility of collateral statements are not conclusive since the debate is ongoing.







Amar, V., & Oakley, J. B. (2009). In American civil procedure: A guide to civil adjudication in US courts. Alphen Aan Den Rijn, the Netherlands: Kluwer Law International.

Kirkpatrick, L. C., Mueller, C. B., & Mueller, C. B. (1999). In Evidence: Practice under the rules. Gaithersburg [Md.: Aspen Law & Business.











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