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Hospital Statements Not Allowed in Abuse Case

(CN) - An Iowa man convicted of domestic abuse is entitled to a new trial because his ex-girlfriend's hearsay statements shouldn't have been used against him, the state's highest court ruled.

A woman named in court records as M.D. reportedly called 911 in June 2012 and told police officers that Trent Smith, who did not live with her, had been abusing her for 10 years.

She said that she heard a sound in the night and was hit in the head when she was investigating the noise. M.D. also claimed that she was kicked in the head and lost consciousness.

At the hospital, M.D. told the nurse that her "baby's daddy" had attacked her, court records show. The doctor treated her but did not diagnose her as a victim of domestic abuse.

Smith was charged with domestic abuse assault, but the state told the court that M.D. wanted to recant her identification of Smith as her attacker.

The state proceeded with its case anyway. The trial court allowed M.D.'s statements to medical personnel under the medical treatment and diagnosis exception to the hearsay rule.

M.D. testified that she had been injured because she drank too much and fell off a trampoline.

Despite this testimony, Smith was convicted of domestic abuse assault. He appealed, arguing that M.D.'s statements after her injury should have been excluded.

The Iowa Court of Appeals agreed with Smith that M.D.'s statements to police should not have been admitted as excited utterances. However, the appeals court also ruled that her statements at the hospital were admissible, so Smith's conviction was affirmed.

Smith challenged this issue before the Iowa Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in a 4-3 decision last Friday.

"The fighting issue in this case is whether the portion of the statement made to a doctor or nurse that identifies the person who caused or was the source of injury is reasonably pertinent to diagnosis or treatment," Chief Justice Mark Cady explained in the March 4 ruling.

He noted that no "categorical rule" exists to allow all statements of alleged victims of domestic abuse under the hearsay exception.

"In this light, we reject the argument by the state that statements of identity by victims of domestic abuse should be categorically admissible because such statements are now commonly admitted in cases of child abuse," Cady wrote.

He added that the hospital staff did not use information about M.D.'s alleged attacker in their treatment of her.

"In fact, there was nothing from the circumstances at the hospital to reasonably indicate M.D.'s treatment or diagnosis would have been different if she had not mentioned the identity of her perpetrator in describing how she was injured," Cady wrote.

The majority of the Iowa Supreme Court found that the trial court mistakenly admitted M.D.'s statements to a nurse and doctor, a prejudicial error that requires a new trial.

Justice Thomas Waterman dissented from his colleagues.

"In my view, our court adopted a categorical rule in child abuse cases, and the rationale easily extends to adult domestic abuse," Waterman wrote.

Later Waterman said he would till find the record here adequate to warrant admission of this evidence, "even if I agreed with the majority that [such admissions] ... should only occur on a case-by-case basis."

He added that M.D.'s statements at the hospital should have been admitted as excited utterances.

"The substance of M.D.'s statement was the very reason she was so upset - because she had been assaulted by her intimate partner, the father of her child," Waterman wrote.

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