It is one thing if a witness who saw a supposed crime testifies about the incident in court. It is another matter if the witness only claims to have heard about an alleged offense from another person. This gets into the realm of hearsay, which may not be admissible as evidence.
The criminal justice system should screen out evidence that is no better than gossip. Evidence against a defendant that is unreliable and hard to verify could cause a judge to throw out the charges.
The definition of hearsay evidence
Federal and state laws look at hearsay as an out-of-court statement that someone makes in court with the purpose of proving the truth of whatever matter is in question during the trial. A hearsay statement can consist of a statement spoken out loud as well as paper documents. Even body language could qualify.
The rule against hearsay evidence
According to the Federal Rules of Evidence, a court cannot admit hearsay as evidence. However, in certain cases a court may accept hearsay evidence. It depends on whether a federal statute or rule says otherwise, or if state law creates an exception.
Possible exceptions to allow hearsay
Federal rules lay out 23 different exceptions that allow for hearsay evidence. A common example is when a person recalls a statement that someone uttered at the time of an event or immediately following it. The event may have also excited a person to say something which another person may recall in court.
Other examples of permitted hearsay evidence generally include medical or reputational statements, or documents that may include government, family, business or church records.
Challenging hearsay evidence
Any criminal evidence should stand up to scrutiny. While there is great latitude to introduce some forms of hearsay evidence into a court trial, statements that are just gossip or slander should not determine the innocence or guilt of a person in trial.