Admissibility of pre-trial denials

For no good reason, there has recently been some hesitation about whether the exculpatory parts of a statement that also has incriminating content, made by an accused to the police before trial, are admissible as proof of their truth. In Mule v R [2005] HCA 49 (8 September 2005) the law was left unchanged: the exculpatory parts may be relied on by the defence at trial as evidence of their truth. The High Court of Australia noted that this was the established law in Australia and England (citing the House of Lords decision R v Aziz [1996] AC 41, which, however, is a little controversial, insofar as it suggests that an accused cannot insist on production of his mixed statement).

We might as well take advantage of the current dearth of interesting cases (it is the holiday season in Europe) to dwell upon this. Prior consistent statements are inadmissible, as hearsay (R v Sturgeon (2004) 21 CRNZ 345 (CA)), so when an accused gives evidence, the fact that he said the same thing outside court is not proof of the truth of what was asserted. Even the fact that he said it is inadmissible, unless recent fabrication is alleged, in which case it is admissible as proof of consistency, and not as proof of the fact asserted. This rather subtle distinction is, of course, a source of some confusion.

So, when a suspect is interviewed by the police and he makes a fully exculpatory statement, that is hearsay and the defence cannot insist that the prosecution adduce it in evidence. Usually, however, statements to the police do include admissions, even if not complete admissions of the offence alleged. They may admit certain things but deny an ingredient that the prosecution have to prove to establish guilt. These are called mixed statements. As a matter of fairness, the law has allowed them to be admitted as proof of the truth of both their inculpatory and their exculpatory parts: R v Wilkie 27/4/05, CA6/05; R v Poa 26/7/01, CA48/01.

Obviously, a line has to be drawn between statements that are genuinely mixed, and those that are contrived to be exculpatory in the hope that the prosecution will have to adduce them in evidence: R v Reihana 22/3/01, CA350/00.

When an accused gives evidence at trial, it is customary for the judge to give the jury what is called a tripartite direction: (1) they may accept the accused’s evidence and find him not guilty; (2) they may think that the accused’s evidence cerates a reasonable doubt and find him not guilty; (3) they may reject the accused’s evidence, in which case they must consider the evidence in the case that they do accept and determine whether it proves guilt beyond reasonable doubt: R v McI [1998] 1 NZLR 696 (CA). Such a direction is not required for a pre-trial statement: R v I 16/10/02, CA255/02, but it can be given: Reihana, above. Where the accused has made a pre-trial statement but does not give evidence at trial, the judge may comment on the reduced weight that the statement may have: R v Green 18/2/92, CA119/92.

With the law in this mildly complex, but settled, state, it is hardly surprising that the Supreme Court has recently declined to accept an appeal on the question of the admissibility of the exculpatory parts of a pre-trial statement.

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