Res Gestae

The Latin term res gestae literally translates to mean “things done.” Res gestae is used to refer to a declaration that is made at an event that proves the event happened because the words were uttered upon witnessing the event. For example, res gestae would exist if a person yelled “FIRE!” upon noticing that a fire had broken out in a crowded movie theater. This declaration can be interpreted as proof that a fire actually happened. To explore this concept, consider the following res gestae definition.

Definition of Res Gestae

Noun

  1. Things done
  2. The acts, circumstances, and statements that are incidental to the facts of a litigated matter, and which are admissible as evidence.
  3. A term used to describe a declaration that is made in such close connection to an event that it can be used to prove that the event actually happened.

Origin

1610-1620       Latin (“things done”)

Doctrine of Res Gestae

The doctrine of Res gestae is a term used to describe what is called the “start-to-end” period of a felony. Res gestae was once considered an exception to the hearsay rule. This is because it concerns a declaration that is uttered so closely to the occurrence of an event that it can be used to prove that the event actually happened.

Further, because a statement made under the doctrine of res gestae is made naturally and spontaneously, there is little room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation by anyone who hears it. Therefore, if a witness were to testify and repeat such a statement to the court, that statement could then be used as evidence. Courts thus believe such statements to be thoroughly reliable.

Doctrine of Res gestae statements can fall into one of three categories:

  • Words or phrases that either wholly or partially explain a physical act
  • Exclamations that are so spontaneous that they prevent anyone from successfully lying to the contrary
  • Statements that prove an individual’s state of mind

In some jurisdictions, res gestae has also been used in connection with the admission of sketches the police draw of potential suspects. Consider the following example of res gestae in action:

Ellen is standing in line, waiting to return an item to her local department store. She notices a younger man running at top speed out of the store, and an older man, who appears to be the store manager, yelling “Stop! Shoplifter!” The older man waves down a female employee, and the two race off into the parking lot, attempting to catch the alleged thief before he can get away. The alleged shoplifter is caught, and at his trial, Ellen is called as an eyewitness to testify as to what she heard the store manager say.

Such a statement would be considered admissible evidence because the manager made the declaration at the exact moment that the young man dashed out of the store. This leaves little room for Ellen, or any other eyewitness for that matter, to have misunderstood the manager’s meaning or intention.

The theft that had occurred was made all the more clear by the manager’s declaration, which proved that a theft actually happened. Else, an eyewitness could have assumed that the man was rushing out of the store for any number of reasons that had nothing to do with committing a crime.

Res Gestae in Hearsay Law

Res gestae in hearsay law is considered to be the exception to the rule. This is due to the fact that hearsay is normally prohibited from being considered by a court of law, as it cannot be verified. For instance, if a witness testifies that his neighbor heard the accused say something incriminating, this is hearsay because the neighbor is not present in the courtroom and therefore cannot be called to the stand to verify his statement, or how he came to have knowledge of the fact.

Res gestae in hearsay law, however, is different. Consider the previous example. If a witness testifies that his neighbor yelled “Thief!”, and the witness immediately saw the accused leaving his neighbor’s house with a television under one arm, this declaration may be admissible as evidence. This is because the neighbor’s declaration adds clarity to the situation and essentially proves that the accused stole the television. There is little to no room for doubt or misunderstanding for the witness to think anything other than what his neighbor was trying to communicate: that someone was stealing his television.

This is what makes res gestae in hearsay law the exception. While hearsay is considered more of an unconfirmed rumor, res gestae is a declaration that is made so clearly and so close in connection with the timing of the event that it would be nearly impossible to misinterpret it. This is why courts tend to assign a higher level of credibility to res gestae than they do hearsay. The rationale is that, in the heat of the moment while witnessing a crime, a witness is not as likely to lie because he is caught off-guard. Therefore, the statement that he makes is more natural and spontaneous, rather than something he may have invented when given more time to think.

Res Gestae Witness

A res gestae witness is an individual that either has first-hand knowledge of an event taking place, or was present at its happening. There are several types of res gestae witnesses that can exist. An example of a res gestae witness who could be called upon to testify at a trial is a percipient witness, which is a witness who testifies about the things that he personally heard, saw, or otherwise experienced. A res gestae witness can also be a voluntary witness, which means that he offers to testify voluntarily. There is no need to subpoena such a witness to compel him to testify because he is already willing to do so.

Res Gestae Example Involving an Attempted Murder

An example of res gestae testimony can be found in a case involving attempted murder, which led to an actual murder. In 1995, Zarik Rose was imprisoned for the attempted murder of Charles Mosley. While still in jail and awaiting his trial, Rose met Salvatore Puglia and Larry Graves, both of whom eventually appeared as witnesses for the state at Rose’s trial. According to Puglia, Rose told him that he wanted to have Mosley “whacked,” to ensure that Mosley could not testify in connection with the attempted murder charges against Rose.

Puglia later aided police in their investigation of Rose by wearing a wire and transmitting back to the police the incriminating statements that Rose was making to him. Graves testified that Rose had propositioned him about killing Mosley, offering him between two and three thousand dollars, as well as a significant amount of drugs as a reward. Upon his release, Graves heeded Rose’s directive and killed Mosley. Graves was subsequently arrested and pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter. He also agreed to testify against Rose at the latter’s upcoming trial.

At Rose’s trial, the court found that Graves’ testimony was admissible as res gestae under New Jersey’s Rule of Evidence 404(b). However, the court also gave the jury limited instructions insofar as how to proceed with the evidence they had been given.

Rose was ultimately convicted of purposeful murder, and on appeal he argued, in part, that all the evidence that related to the fact that he was put in prison on charges of attempted murder was improperly admitted. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision, and the case was appealed up to the Supreme Court for the State of New Jersey. The Court agreed to hear the case only to address whether the evidence relating to Rose’s prior indictment and imprisonment on charges of attempted murder was, in fact, admissible.

In the end, the Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s decision, holding that Graves’ testimony proved Rose’s plan and intent to murder Mosley. Further, the Court held that the trial court’s limited instructions to the jury insofar as handling the evidence presented to them was legitimate and proper. However, in a rather notable move, the Court also declared that the doctrine of res gestae no longer holds up when considering the formal Rules of Evidence.

Specifically, the Court held:

“The various positions taken by counsel, the trial court, and the Appellate Division as to how to analyze the disputed misconduct evidence demonstrate that there exists confusion and uncertainty about the use of the common-law doctrine of res gestae, and its very status as a viable feature of New Jersey’s evidence jurisprudence. Res gestae translates from Latin as things done, and from that translation springs its conceptualization both as an independent hearsay exception and as a shorthand reference to intrinsic evidence of a singular transaction or event. The uses of res gestae as a hearsay exception are now recognized as the predecessors to the codified hearsay exceptions in the Rules of Evidence. The codified Rules should be applied to hearsay evidence of all forms, including that which has heretofore been described as res gestae.”

In simple terms, the Court explained that res gestae has essentially been replaced by laws codified in the Rules of Evidence. It then instructed that the Rules of Evidence be used regarding all forms of hearsay evidence – including res gestae.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Hearsay – Information that cannot be proven, as it has been provided by individuals not present in court to verify it; a rumor.
  • Jury – A group of people sworn to render a verdict in a trial, based on evidence presented.
  • Subpoena – A writ issued by the court ordering a person to appear as a witness in a judicial proceeding, or requesting submission of certain evidence.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.

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