What is Res Gestae?

B. Winger

Res gestae, a Latin phrase meaning "things done," is a dormant legal term that allowed certain forms of hearsay to be admitted as evidence. Under res gestae, secondhand statements could be admitted into the evidence of a court case if they were made spontaneously as an event occurred. The rationale behind this practice was that spontaneous utterances were free from the potential misinterpretations of other kinds of hearsay.

Res gestae is rarely used in courtroom culture today.
Res gestae is rarely used in courtroom culture today.

Beginning in the 1920s, res gestae was increasingly codified to distinguish the secondhand statements that were allowed into the courtroom from those that were explicitly banned. Most modern courts only allow admission for three types of statements: words explaining a physical act, spontaneous admissions, and statements that explain state of mind. Unless a statement specifically falls under one of these three categories, it usually is considered inadmissible.

Some countries, such as Canada, allow secondhand information to be used if a statement creates legal rights. This fourth category would allow spontaneous statements such as, "She's my wife!" to be included in a trial because they establish a legal relationship between the parties. The rationale behind allowing these statements is that they establish a legal relationship that the court must consider to arrive at an accurate verdict.

In some cases, res gestae is interpreted broadly to allow utterances that would not normally be allowed. For example, many child abuse trials liberally use secondhand statements to avoid the trauma of forcing a child to take the stand in open court. Sensitive cases such as these rely on statements that would traditionally be considered hearsay to make the trial run smoothly.

When res gestae statements are to be used in court as a pivotal part of the case, a voir dire hearing is often required. This hearing allows the defense and the prosecution to assess the accuracy of the statement and its overall validity to the trial. Voir dire hearings are especially important in trials where secondhand statements will constitute a large bulk of the evidence, such as in child abuse trials.

A significantly less common use of the term is found in felony murder trials. In these cases, res gestae refers to the beginning-to-end process of the trial. It can also be used to denote secondhand statements, often causing confusion. The confusion between the uses of this legal term in felony murder cases is one of the major reasons why res gestae is rarely used in modern courtroom culture.

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Discussion Comments


@bythewell - I don't think this is the same thing as an expert witness, which is what a psychiatrist would be considered.

While they might say that the child said that they had been abused, it wouldn't be the point of the testimony. The point would more likely be to give their opinion as to whether the child was coerced into talking or not talking and whether they know what they are talking about and what damage has been done to them and so forth.

I'm not an expert myself, but I think that falls under a different ruling than res gestae.

That's more for when there's no other way of establishing a crime except to ask people to repeat what they have heard from others, rather than what they have witnessed themselves.

In the case of a psychiatrist, they have witnessed a child who has been abused with their own eyes and presumably can tell that because of their training.

A person using hearsay in this case can only say that they were told by the child that there was abuse, but don't have the expertise or the first hand knowledge of the crime that is usually required.


I'd never thought about this as an issue, but it makes sense to me that in some cases secondhand evidence, or hearsay would have to be used.

The example in the article is a good one, as child abuse is bad enough without the poor kid having to take the stand to talk about it. The evidence of a person who can be trusted and who heard the child say what happened (or several people like that) should be compelling evidence.

Is this the same thing as a psychiatrist saying that the child said that they had been abused? It seems to me like that would also basically be hearsay, just from the mouth of someone who is, in theory, going to be even more trustworthy and able to analyze the situation for the jury or judge.

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