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Missouri Supreme Court: Use of Out-of-Court Statement Admitted at Trial Exceeded Limited Purpose of Exception to Rule Against Hearsay Upon Which It Was Admitted

by Matt Clarke

The Supreme Court of Missouri, sitting en banc, held that the trial court committed prejudicial error by allowing a police detective to testify at trial regarding an out-of-court statement made to police by a person who did not testify at trial to prove the matter asserted — in this case, that the defendant unlawfully possessed firearms – and thus, the statement’s use exceeded the scope permitted by the specific exception to the rule against hearsay relied upon to admit the statement.

Eric G. Hollowell’s wife, Beckey, reported incidents of domestic violence to police, so they arrested him. Beckey also told them her husband was a convicted felon who possessed numerous firearms. She let them into her home, led them to a locked safe, and opened it using a key in her possession. The safe contained 15 firearms, some of which were engraved with names indicating they belonged to family members other than her husband.

Hollowell was charged with 15 counts of unlawfully possessing a firearm. In the resulting jury trial, during opening statements, the prosecutor stated Beckey would testify that she periodically purchased guns on her husband’s behalf, that he also had keys to the gun safe, and that he frequently used the guns.

The prosecution called only two witnesses at trial, a detective and a jail guard. Over defense counsel’s objections, which the trial court overruled on the assumption that Beckey would subsequently testify at trial, the prosecutor asked the detective whether Beckey had told him her husband had several firearms in the home. He said yes and affirmed that Beckey’s husband was Hollowell.

Attempting to mitigate the damage, defense counsel cross-examined the detective, getting into the record that police relied solely on Beckey’s statement to connect Hollowell to the guns, that police did not know how many people lived in the home, and that they did not investigate whether any of the guns were owned by any other occupant of the home.

Beckey never appeared or testified at trial. Nonetheless, during closing arguments, the prosecutor argued that she told the detective that the guns belonged to her husband, not her, and thus he exercised control over them. The jury convicted Hollowell on all 15 counts.

Hollowell filed a motion for a new trial, citing the improper use of hearsay testimony from Beckey. In response, the judge noted that the case was “barely submissible” and “there were a lot of things about this trial, really and truly, that troubled” the judge. The judge said she had “never made it a secret that [she] was extremely unhappy over the fact that Beckey Hollowell did not show up for the trial,” and had she known Beckey would not be testifying, she would have prevented the out-of-court statement related by the detective during his testimony. Nonetheless, the judge overruled the motion and sentenced Hollowell to 14-concurrent seven-year sentences and a consecutive four-year sentence. He appealed.

The Court began its analysis by discussing the hearsay rule. It observed that hearsay is an out-of-court statement introduced to prove the truth of the matter asserted by the statement and is dependent upon the statement’s truthfulness for its evidentiary value. State v. Kemp, 212 S.W.3d 135 (Mo. 2007) (en banc). The general rule is that hearsay is inadmissible unless one of the recognized exceptions to the rule against hearsay applies. Id. If the statement isn’t being introduced to prove the truth of the subject matter of the statement, the statement doesn’t constitute hearsay, so its admissibility isn’t dependent on whether it fits within a recognized exception to the hearsay rule. State v. Bell, 62 S.W.3d 84 (Mo. App. Ct. 2001).

One recognized exception to the rule against hearsay is when an out-of-court statement is not offered for the truth of the matter set forth in the statement but rather “to explain and provide context for subsequent police action,” the Court explained. Bell. In that case, the statement isn’t considered hearsay and is admissible. Id. However, statements admitted under this exception must be limited to explain subsequent police conduct. State v. Douglas, 131 S.W.3d 818 (Mo.  App. Ct. 2004). Because out-of-court statements admitted under this exception are done so only to explain subsequent police conduct, such statements may not be used as substantive evidence to prove the matter asserted in the statements. Id. And they may not be used to “to elicit details directly connecting the defendant to the crime.” State v. Hoover, 220 S.W.3d 395 (Mo. App. Ct. 2007).

The Court discussed two cases addressing this exception to the rule against hearsay. In State v. Edwards, 116 S.W.3d 511 (Mo. 2003) (en banc), the court rejected the defendant’s challenge to out-of-court statements of the accomplice, who didn’t testify, admitted into evidence through the testimony of police officers because, for the most part, the officers never repeated any part of the accomplice’s statements that implicated the defendant, and such statements were used only to explain why police went to the location where the murder weapon was recovered.

In State v. Loper, 609 S.W.3d 725 (Mo. 2020) (en banc), the court rejected a similar challenge by the defendant where an officer testified at trial that a doctor, who didn’t testify, told him the victim’s injuries weren’t self-inflicted because another doctor testified at trial to the same effect, and so, the officer’s testimony regarding whether the injuries were self-inflicted was not the only evidence presented on the issue.

    Turning to the present case, the Court stated that, in contrast to Loper, the detective’s testimony regarding Beckey’s out-of-court statement was the only evidence presented on the dispositive issue – possession and control of the firearms. In violation of the rule limiting the purpose of statements admitted under the exception at issue in this case, the detective’s testimony concerning Beckey’s statement directly implicated Hollowell. Furthermore, unlike the limiting questions and responses in Edwards, the Court stated that the prosecution’s questioning of the detective in this case allowed him to testify beyond what was needed to explain why he went to Hollowell’s home to search the safe and to directly implicate Hollowell. In effect, it was as though Beckey were testifying at trial without being subject to cross-examination, the Court explained. Thus, the Court ruled that the trial court erred and abused its discretion by allowing the detective to testify about Beckey’s out-of-court statement without the required limitations.

The Court further ruled that the error was prejudicial because a “reasonable probability exists the jury relied on Beckey’s out-of-court statement to conclude Hollowell possessed the guns” because there was no other direct evidence on this issue. See Douglas. Finally, the Court ruled that Hollowell is entitled to a new trial.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the trial court’s judgment and remanded for a new trial consistent with its opinion. See: State v. Hollowell, 643 S.W.3d 329 (Mo. 2022) (en banc). 

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