There are a lot of ways wrongful convictions happen: faulty expert testimony, false confessions, bad police work, prosecutorial misconduct, etc. In the case of Christian “Kit” Martin, the most damaging testimony at trial, and the testimony most likely to have led to a guilty verdict, involved hearsay evidence.
In a later post, I will show the testimony that led to a wrongful conviction. But first a little background on hearsay evidence. The simple definition of hearsay evidence is “statements made by someone other than the one reporting it.” In most cases, hearsay evidence is not allowed at trial. If you want to know what was said, then you can ask the person who said it.
There are, however, exceptions where hearsay evidence is permitted. One exception involves a legal term known as forfeiture by wrongdoing. If I kill someone so they can’t testify against me, that is forfeiture by wrongdoing.
In the Kit Martin trial, Judge Atkins ruled that he was going to allow hearsay evidence based on the preponderance of the evidence, adding that the defendant should not receive a windfall from his wrongdoing.
There are a number of problems with his ruling. For one, the Commonwealth hadn’t presented any evidence that tied Kit to the crime. They had also used false testimony to get an indictment. Furthermore, in order for Judge Atkins to rule the way he did, the commonwealth had to show that a specific threat had been made. If I see you on the street, and I say “better watch your back.” That can be considered a specific threat. Kit Martin never threatened anyone.
There are a number of reasons why Calvin and Pam Phillips were feeling stressed. Calvin Phillips was the star witness in a court-martial against Kit Martin. Kit Martin lived next door. Kit was looking at the possibility of not only losing his military career but his freedom. There was also the likelihood that some embarrassing personal information might be made public. But fear is not enough to pass the hearsay exception. Kit’s defense lawyer, Tom Griffiths, makes this abundantly clear. Judge Atkins, however, came up with a convoluted explanation of why he was going to allow the hearsay evidence. You can listen to his reasoning for yourself. Besides having to show a specific threat, there is another requirement and that is the preponderance of the evidence must show that the defendant most likely did commit wrongdoing. Tom Griffiths goes through the complete lack of evidence in his argument to the judge. Judge Atkins, however, rules otherwise. Without this one ruling and the hearsay evidence allowed into the trial, I do not believe the jury would have found Kit guilty.
Here’s how it all went down.