A witness cannot always testify about things he heard or read. Hearsay is a type of testimony that is generally inadmissible in court – – meaning it is a category of testimony that courts generally prohibit.
The standard definition of hearsay is an out of court statement offered for the truth of the matter asserted. What does that mean? Whenever a witness at a trial tries to testify about what someone else told him, and a lawyer wants the jury to believe that what the witness heard was true, we might have a hearsay problem.
Let’s say Debbie is on trial for robbing a store. David saw Debbie go to the store at 1:00, ten minutes before the robbery. David told Wally that he saw Debbie go to the store at 1:00. Can the prosecutor ask Wally to testify that David told him that he saw Debbie go to the store? Maybe not – – this looks like hearsay. Wally is testifying about David’s out of court statement. And the prosecutor wants the jury to believe that what David said was true.
Please keep in mind that there are a number of important exceptions to the hearsay rule – – we’ll talk about them in other posts.
Also, just because a witness testifies about what another person said does not always make it hearsay. Let’s say a person was carrying an umbrella in New York City on a day that it did not rain. He carried the umbrella because a weather report incorrectly stated that there was a thunderstorm in New York that day. If the person explains that he was carrying the umbrella because of the weather report he is not claiming that the weather report was true. The weather report is not being offered for the truth of the matter asserted. Everyone knows that the weather report was false. But we want to know what the weather report said because it explains why the person carried an umbrella on a day with no rain.