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Conrad v. Griffey (57 U.S. 38)/Opinion of the Court

< Conrad v. Griffey (57 U.S. 38)

United States Supreme Court

57 U.S. 38

Conrad  v.  Griffey


Crowley v. Page, 7 Carrington & Payne, 789, (32 Com. Law Rep. 737.) 'If the witness made a previous contradictory statement, in writing, on a matter relevant to the issue, he may be asked, on cross-examination, whether the paper containing it is in his handwriting; and if he admit it, that will entitle the other side to read it; and if he contradicts the evidence of the witness, he may be called back to explain it.' 4 Harrison's Dig. 2948, No. 11.

Yeos v. The State, 4 Eng. R. 42. 'Where a witness has made a different statement from the one made by him on the trial, he is not thereby discredited, unless the discrepancy is wilful.'

Story v. Saunders, 8 Humph. R. 663. 'When the deposition of a witness is taken, evidence of his having made contradictory statements are not admissible to impeach his testimony, unless an opportunity to explain had been first offered him.'

The contradictory statement offered in this case was the witness's testimony on a previous trial.

In Everson v. Carpenter, 17 Wend. 419, referring to the requisites for admitting a written instrument by way of contradiction, Cowen, J., said: 'It was introduced, with the proper preliminary question to the witness, whether he had made the indenture and the representation about to be imputed to him. He answered with such explanations as occurred to him. Here was all the precaution required by this kind of examination by the Queen's case and others.'

In Kimball v. Davis, 19 Wend. 437, Nelson C. J. considered this question at length, in a case where the defendant offered to prove that witnesses who had been examined undera commission, had subsequently made statements contradicting their written testimony. The marginal note of his decision is in these words:

'The declarations of witnesses whose testimony has been taken under a commission, made subsequent to the taking of their testimony, contradicting or invalidating their testimony as contained in the depositions, is inadmissible in evidence, if objected to; the only way for the party to avail himself of such declarations, is to sue out a second commission; such evidence is always inadmissible until the witness whose testimony is thus sought to be impeached, has been examined upon the point, and his attention particularly directed to the circumstances of the transaction, so as to furnish him an opportunity for explanation or exculpation.'

This case went to the Court of Errors, and is reported in the 25th of Wend., 259, where it was affirmed. Walworth, Chancellor, there said: 'I concur with the Supreme Court in the opinion that it was improper to give the declarations of the witnesses in evidence without giving them, in the first place, an opportunity to explain; and the fact that the witnesses had been examined under a commission did not prevent the operation of the principle upon which the rule is founded.'

Edwards, Senator, said he was satisfied with Chief Justice Nelson's reasoning on this question.

Howell v. Reynolds, 12 Alabama R. 128. 'The rule that a witness cannot be contradicted by proof of previous counter declarations, either written or verbal, applies to testimony taken by deposition, and if such supposed contradictory declarations exist at the time the deposition is taken, the witness must have an opportunity afforded him of explaining it, if in his power. 'The reason of the rule is, that he may have it in his power to explain the apparent contradiction, and the rule is the same, whether the declaration of the witness supposed to contradict his testimony be written or verbal.' 3 Stark. Ev. 1741. 'The question is usually made when the witnesses are examined orally in open court, and in our opinion it must also apply to testimony taken by deposition, as the deposition is a mere substitute for the witness; and we can perceive no reason why a witness testifying in this should not be entitled to the same protection as if he had testified orally, in the presence of the court and jury. If this paper existed when the plaintiff was notified that the deposition of the witness was to be taken, and was informed by the interrogatories of the testimony the witness was expected to give, it was his duty to give him an opportunity of explaining it, if he could, and reconciling it with the evidence he then gave, if there was any real or apparent contradiction between them.'

Mr. Justice McLEAN delivered the opinion of the court.

This is a writ of error to the Circuit Court of the United States, for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

This action was brought to recover the balance of three thousand seven hundred and eighty-one dollars and fifty-eight cents, claimed to be due under a contract to furnish, deliver, and set up, on the plantation of the defendant, in the parish of Boton Rouge, a steam-engine and sugar-mill boilers, wheels, cane carriers, and all other things necessary for a sugar-mill; all which articles were duly delivered.

The defendant in his answer set up several matters in defence.

The error alleged arises on the rejection of evidence offered by the defendant on the trial before the jury, and which appears in the bill of exceptions. The plaintiff read in evidence the deposition of Leonard N. Nutz, taken under a commission on the 28th of June, 1852, and filed the 9th of July succeeding. The defendant then offered in evidence a letter of the witness dated at New Albany, on the 3d April, 1846, with an affidavit annexed by him of the same date, addressed to the plaintiff Griffey. As preliminary proof to the introduction of said letter, the defendant adduced the bill of exceptions signed upon a former trial of this cause, and filed on the 23d February, 1849, showing that the letter had been produced by the plaintiff in the former trial, and read by his counsel in evidence as the letter of Nutz, in support of a former deposition made by him. And the said letter and affidavit were offered by the defendant to contradict and discredit the deposition of the witness taken the 28th June, 1852; but upon objection of counsel for the plaintiff that the witness had not been cross-examined in reference to the writing of said letter, or allowed an opportunity of explaining the same, it was rejected.

At the former trial the letter was offered in evidence by the plaintiff in the Circuit Court, to corroborate what Nutz, the witness, at that time had sworn to; and the letter was admitted to be read for that purpose by the court. On a writ of error, this court held that the Circuit Court erred in admitting the letter as evidence, and on that ground reversed the judgment. Conrad v. Griffey, 11 How. 492.

The rule is well settled in England, that a witness cannot be impeached by showing that he had made contradictory statements from those sworn to, unless on his examination he was asked whether he had not made such statements to the individuals by whom the proof was expected to be given. In the Queen's case, 2 Brod. & Bing. 312; Angus v. Smith, 1 Moody & Malkin, 473; 3 Starkie's Ev. 1740, 1753, 1754; Carpenter v. Wall, 11 Adol. & Ellis, 803.

This rule is founded upon common sense, and is essential to protect the character of a witness. His memory is refreshed by the necessary inquiries, which enables him to explain the statements referred to, and show they were made under a mistake, or that there was no discrepancy between them and his testimony.

This rule is generally established in this country as in England. Doe v. Reagan, 5 Blackford, 217; Franklin Bank v. Steam Nav. Co. 11 Gill & Johns. 28; Palmer v. Haight, 2 Barbour's Sup. Ct. R. 210, 213; 1 McLean's R. 540; 2 Ib. 325; 4 Ib. 378, 381; Jenkins v. Eldridge, 2 Story's Rep. 181, 284; Kimball v. Davis, 19 Wend. 437; 25 Wend. 259. 'The declaration of witnesses whose testimony has been taken under a commission, made subsequent to the taking of their testimony, contradicting or invalidating their testimony as contained in the depositions, is inadmissible, if objected to. The only way for the party to avail himself of such declarations is to sue out a second commission.' 'Such evidence is always inadmissible until the witness, whose testimony is thus sought to be impeached, has been examined upon the point, and his attention particularly directed to the circumstances of the transaction, so as to furnish him an opportunity for explanation or exculpation.'

This rule equally applies whether the declaration of the witness, supposed to contradict his testimony, be written or verbal. Starkie's Ev. 1741.

A written statement or deposition is as susceptible of explanation, as verbal statements. A different rule prevails in Massachusetts and the State of Maine.

The letter appears to have been written six years before the deposition was taken which the letter was offered to discredit. This shows the necessity and propriety of the rule. It is not probable that, after the lapse of so many years, the letter was in the mind of the witness when his deposition was sworn to. But, independently of the lapse of time, the rule of evidence is a salutary one, and cannot be dispensed with in the courts of the United States. There was no error in the rejection of the letter, under the circumstances, by the Circuit Court; its judgment is therefore affirmed, with costs.

This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record, from the Circuit Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Louisiana, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered and adjudged, by this court, that the judgment of the said Circuit Court in this cause be, and the same is hereby, affirmed, with costs and interest, until paid, at the same rate per annum that similar judgments bear in the courts of the State of Louisiana.

NotesEdit

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).