Dead Man's Words Support a Murder Conviction
"Dead men tell no tales," according to a swarthy buccaneer on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World. Well, that is not completely true in Florida, and in fact in most states. Dead men have testified in American courts consistently, and their words are often enough to convict the accused of murder. It is what attorneys know as the "dying declaration," and it was used as early as 1770 during the prosecution of a British soldier in the Boston Massacre.
Generally, courts do not accept testimony at a trial unless the witness is present at the trial or, at the very least, both sides had the opportunity to question the witness. The dying declaration is an exception to the rule. If the witness cannot be at trial (being dead is a rather effective excuse), his or her statement is being offered in a murder trial or civil case, the witness believed he or she was about to die, and the statement is about the cause of his or her death, the courts can accept it, according to the Federal Rules of Evidence.
Consider the case of Roosevelt McDonald, who, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, died of gunshot wounds on a Daytona Beach street on March 31, 2009. While lying in the street, McDonald said, "He shot me. I do not want to die. He took my car." McDonald then identified his attacker to police. This statement is now the pivotal piece of evidence in the murder prosecution of McDonald's alleged assailant. One statement made to police with no one else present could convict a person of first-degree murder. It all depends on whether the jury believes it.
How can you be accused of a crime by a person and not have the right to confront him or her? Couldn't the accuser be lying? Over the years, courts have not thought so. The thinking is, if people know they are dying and going to the great beyond, they certainly do not want to meet their maker with a lie on their lips. Because of the gravity of the situation, and the fact that the accuser can achieve little benefit from lying, the statement is given the benefit of the doubt. The jury ultimately gets to decide whether they believe it. So never assume that a dead man can tell no tales. His last one might be good enough to convict a murderer.