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Prison inmate James Washington suffered a heart attack in 2009, so he made what he thought was a deathbed confession in an effort to ease his burdens.
While being escorted to a hospital, Washington turned to a guard and admitted he'd killed a woman by beating her to death, the New York Daily News reports. Then with a clear conscience, Washington prepared to shuffle off this mortal coil.
But alas, Washington unexpectedly recovered from his heart attack, and was released from the hospital. As a result, his "deathbed" confession became a much bigger problem than he'd ever expected.
At the time of his heart attack, Washington was serving time for a separate crime. But back in 1995, police had suspected he was involved in the murder of a woman named Joyce Goodener.
Police didn't have enough evidence to arrest Washington at the time, but his "deathbed" confession was enough for prosecutors to link Washington to the crime.
Washington tried unsuccessfully to keep the comment from being used at trial, reports The Global Dispatch. But the statement was used to convict him in a case that wrapped up last month. For Goodener's murder, Washington will now serve up to 51 years in prison.
Statements like Washington's are often excluded from trials as hearsay. Hearsay is any statement made out of court that's offered to prove the truth of what the person allegedly said. In general, hearsay is not allowed because the out-of-court statement may be untrue or untrustworthy.
But certain kinds of statements, including deathbed confessions, are generally considered more trustworthy and may be allowed at trial. The reason: It's logical that a dying person would want to get some things off his chest and wouldn't have a reason to lie.
It doesn't matter that Washington didn't actually die, as long as he thought he was dying when he made his deathbed confession. That's enough to make the statement trustworthy enough to be used at trial.
The premature deathbed confession may be Washington's biggest regret, but it came as a godsend for Joyce Goodener's daughter. Seventeen years after her mother's murder, she finally has some justice.
Not sure if your out-of-court statements can be used at trial? Post a question to our FindLaw Answers Criminal Law forum so you can be confident that what you say won't be used against you.