[Latin, Things done.] Secondhand statements considered trustworthy for the purpose of admission as evidence in a lawsuit when repeated by a witness because they were made spontaneously and concurrently with an event.
Res gestae describes a common-law doctrine governing testimony. Under the hearsay rule, a court normally refuses to admit as evidence statements that a witness says he or she heard another person say. The doctrine of res gestae provided an exception to this rule. During the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century, courts applied the exception by following an assortment of common-law rules. With the introduction of the federal rules of evidence, federal courts abolished res gestae as a common-law doctrine and replaced it with explicit exceptions to the ban on hearsay. To varying degrees, state rules of evidence are modeled on the federal rules. Although the term is now infrequently used, the legacy of res gestae is an integral part of the modern framework of hearsay evidence.
Traditionally, two reasons have made hearsay inadmissible: unfairness and possible inaccuracy. Allowing a witness to repeat hearsay does not provide the accused with an opportunity to question the speaker of the original statement, and the witness may have misunderstood or misinterpreted the statement. Thus, in a trial, counsel can object to a witness's testimony as hearsay. But in the nineteenth century, the borrowing of the concept of res gestae from english law offered an exception to this rule. Res gestae is based on the belief that because certain statements are made naturally, spontaneously, and without deliberation during the course of an event, they carry a high degree of credibility and leave little room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation. The doctrine held that such statements are more trustworthy than other secondhand statements and therefore should be admissible as evidence.
As the common-law rule developed, it acquired a number of tests for determining admissibility. To be admissible, the statements must relate, explain, or characterize an event or transaction. They must be natural statements growing out of the event, as opposed to a narrative of a past, completed affair. Additionally, the statements must be spontaneous, evoked by the event itself, and not the result of premeditation. Finally, the original speaker must have participated in the transaction or witnessed the event in question. Thus, for example, a witness might testify that during a bank robbery, she or he heard another person shout, "That person is robbing the bank!" and the statement could be admitted as an exception to the ban on hearsay.
In practice, cases involving res gestae were usually decided by applying some variation of these tests. In the 1959 case of Carroll v. Guffey, 20 Ill. App. 2d 470, 156 N.E.2d 267, an Illinois appellate court heard the appeal of a defendant who was held liable for injuries sustained by another motorist in a car crash. The trial court had admitted the testimony of the plaintiff concerning unidentified eyewitnesses who allegedly saw the accident, over the objection of defense counsel who argued that the statements were hearsay. The appellate court ruled that the declarations of the eyewitnesses were not res gestae exceptions: they were not made concurrently with the collision, but afterward, and were only a narrative of what the eyewitnesses said had taken place. Thus the appellate court reversed the trial court's decision.
The process of refining the concept began in the 1920s, when the influential lawyer and educator Edmund M. Morgan attacked its pliability and vagueness: "[T]his troublesome expression owes its existence and persistence in our law of evidence to an inclination of judges and lawyers to avoid the toilsome exertion of exact analysis and precise thinking." In an attempt at clarification, Morgan developed seven categories for the exception. In the 1940s the Model Code of Evidence made further refinements, and by the 1970s the Federal Rules of Evidence had included elements of res gestae in Rule 803 as one of its many exceptions to the hearsay rule.
Moorehead, James Donald. 1995. "Compromising the Hearsay Rule: The Fallacy of Res Gestae Reliability." Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 29 (November).
Morgan, Edmund M. 1922. "A Suggested Classification of Utterances Admissible as Res Gestae." Yale Law Journal 31.
Prater, Dennis D., and Virginia M. Klemme. 1996. "Res Gestae Raises Its Ugly Head." Journal of the Kansas Bar Association 65 (October).