In a weapon-possession case, the Court of Appeals, over a dissent, reversed the appellate division and held the defendant should have been allowed to call an attorney to testify that a (separately tried and acquitted) co-defendant told the attorney the weapon at issue was hers. The court found the attorney’s testimony was admissible under the statement-against-penal-interest exception to the hearsay rule:
The declaration against penal interest exception to the hearsay rule “recognizes the general reliability of such statements . . . because normally people do not make statements damaging to themselves unless they are true” … . The exception has four components: (1) the declarant must be unavailable to testify by reason of death, absence from the jurisdiction or refusal to testify on constitutional grounds; (2) the declarant must be aware at the time the statement is made that it is contrary to penal interest; (3) the declarant must have competent knowledge of the underlying facts; and (4) there must be sufficient proof independent of the utterance to assure its reliability … . The fourth factor is the “most important” aspect of the exception … . Assuming that the other elements are satisfied, such statements can be admissible if there is “a reasonable possibility that the statement might be true” … .
We conclude that the courts below erred by focusing on the inconsistency between the … codefendant’s trial testimony and her pretrial statement to [the] lawyer. Knowledge that a declaration is against penal interests must be assessed “at the time” it was made …, and later recantations generally affect the weight and credibility that a fact-finder should ascribe to the statement. Applying this legal standard, there was adequate evidence to establish admissibility under the particular facts of this case: the handgun was found in a handbag located in the rear of the automobile directly adjacent to the … codefendant; she was the only woman in the vehicle; and the circumstances under which the utterance was declared make it clear that the statement was against her interests. Contrary to the dissent’s contention, there was also sufficient proof that the woman was not available to testify. Finally, the exclusion of the statement cannot be deemed harmless because the People’s case was not overwhelming. Defendants are therefore entitled to a new trial. People v Shabazz, 150, CtApp 10-15-13