Sunday Morning Hot Tea - No. 20

Finding Treasure in the Ashes and Deathbed Confessions

Welcome to Sunday Morning Hot Tea where I write about a little something up top then answer a legal question for you down below. This week, I extol the virtues of blowing up your life. Plus, are death bed confessions a thing? Do they work? What about for top secret classified info?

In this edition

  • Topic of the Week – On the Benefits of Blowing Up Your Life

  • Legal Question – Deathbed Confessions – Say It or Regret It    

TOPIC THIS WEEK: The Beautiful Aftermath

In the moments after announcing that Paris and I were engaged on social media, we were delighted by so many lovely comments and texts. “So happy for you guys!” “Congrats!” “Love this!”

On the group chat for one of the comedy troupes I belong to, Watermelon, the messages were much the same. “I screamed!” “Congrats!” But my dear comedy pal, Austin, added “2nd time’s the charm” which made me laugh so hard and caused me to immediately show Paris.

It’s no secret that I’ve been engaged before. Details aside, it didn’t work out. I never want to try and hide this fact because I don’t want folks to feel like ending something that doesn’t serve you is something to be ashamed of. It is not. If something does not serve you or make you feel like the best version of yourself, there’s no shame in making choices to move in the direction of happiness and freedom, should that be an option.

I understand that is easier said than done. For the longest time, I was frozen in fear. I felt like I was on an unstoppable trajectory toward something inevitable.

Because the universe provides, I met Austin in the very first improv class I took at the now-shuttered Dallas Comedy House back in 2016. He and his best friend, Adam, were some of the youngest of our classmates, who ranged in age from mid-twenties to upper forties. Initially the pair kept to themselves, but one night, they invited me to a diner nearby to grab a bite before class.

After that, we were all three cast in a troupe together and started a Thursday night writing meetup. During and after rehearsals and at these writing meetups, Austin would listen to me lament about my job and my relationship. I spoke as a miserable person but one who seemed unable (or at the very least, unwilling) to make any changes.

One day at a midday lunch, I sat across from him, all long curls, freckles, and skate shoes. He’s only five years younger than me, but for a while there, I felt ancient. I don’t know that I overtly said it, but I definitely had the sinking feeling of things being “too late” for me. This was it. This misery was my fate, and I was bound to it for eternity.

As he attacked a plate of noodles before him, he looked up at me and said, “Why don’t you just quit? Why don’t you just break up? Blow up your life, dude.”

It was just that simple, but also that hard. I didn’t have it in me to head home that night and change everything. But what he said was simple and brave. Don’t get me wrong. It was more than just that sentence. He followed it up with a lot of encouragement. He reminded me I was strong. That I was a lawyer who couldn’t be bullied. That I deserved to be happy. These were all things I had known before, but by then had let sink deep down where they sat dusty and forgotten. My hopelessness deluded me into thinking any resistance to my predetermined fate was futile.

There was power in that simple phrase he gave me. It started as a little tickle in my brain. Blow up your life. Then it grew. I began to psyche myself up.

Though I was engaged, I had not actually engaged in any real wedding planning. My mom drug me to one bridal show. Rather than throw on a “I’M THE BRIDE!” sash and a white mini-dress, my best friend, LeeAnn, and I arrived with Chick-fil-A cups filled with cider and made jokes at all the booths.

At the fine china booth, they asked which of us was the bride. I pointed to LeeAnn and said, “This is my beloved fiancée. Please give her all the fineries she requires. Do you sell the pattern from the plates on the Titanic?”

Despite lugging home a sack full of brochures, I had no interest in pursuing anything further. No date was set. No colors were chosen. I never once tried on a wedding dress. A planned trip to David’s Bridal sent me into a tailspin as all that white fabric promised to swallow me whole and end me once and for all.

I was miserable. I was scared. And, finally, I blew up my life. Quit my job. Ended my engagement.

In the fallout, I rebuilt. Through a series of fortunate events, and a lot of healing, I ended up here. Engaged. Again.

This time I feel different. Just two weeks after we got engaged, Paris and I chose a venue. We’ve already hired a wedding planner. And just twenty days after being engaged, I accidentally found my dress.

My mom – the seamstress, tailor, and costume designer – was understandably focused on the dress. She’s an expert in the field and knows the jargon. She also loves a bargain. A local dress shop was having a trunk show, which she seemed excited about, though I am still not sure what that means. I was in the store. I saw no trunks! When I hear trunk sale I expect women crawling over one another to pull dresses out of dusty pirates’ chests amongst pearls and doubloons

But I agreed to go along and see what they had.

By then, I had read about a dozen local bridal magazines. In my wedding planner notebook, I made a list of eight dress boutiques, not including the trunk show place or any chains, that I planned to visit over the next couple of weeks.

Accompanying my mom and me on this first exploratory mission was Shannon, my sister and matron of honor, and LeeAnn, my maid of honor and forever wife.

We started at the trunk show place. I slipped in and out of a few numbers, but only found one I kind of liked. I didn’t love it. You know on all those TV shows, the stupid blushing bride stands up going, “This is my dress! I don’t want to take it off!” I was hoping for that level of enthusiasm. I thought the dress was ok, but I had some notes. Other dresses, I hated entirely, so at least this was something.

When I didn’t find “the one” at the trunk sale, we moved along to a major bridal chain up the street. The consultant buzzed around me, insisting that I was sure to find “the one” right away. I slipped on dress after dress in good faith, but each time found myself forced to add them to the discard pile. One had a slit that exposed my whole bathing suit area. Another was so thin, my entire Abraham Lincoln tattoo was visible, surely a treat for all our guests.

Finally, we headed to a boutique in the Design District of Dallas. I had chosen a few dresses from their site and emailed my preferences to them in advance of the appointment. It turns out my online taste is full garbage. While the dresses were breathtaking, I felt like I was wearing costumes. None fit right. They itched. They were too flashy. They weren’t me.

Since my choices were a bust, the consultant, Daniela, asked if she could grab some contenders she thought I would like. The first one was a no-go, too tight with off-the-shoulder sleeves that kept my arms down at my side like a penguin. As my time slot was coming to a close, I began mentally planning the visits to the other eight boutiques on my list in the coming weeks.

There was still one remaining dress on the hanger. I don’t want to describe it here too much because my faithful fiancé reads this lovely letter each week (hi babe!). But when I put it on, I heard bells ring.

Daniela pulled back the curtain of the COVID-reduced waiting room, and all three of my maximum-allowable guests gasped. It was perfect. I even said, “This is my dress! I don’t want to take it off!” just like all those idiots on TV.

With my dress on, I paraded around the empty show room, toting with me a fake bouquet until finally it became obvious it was time for us to buy. We put in the order right then and there. The dress should arrive sometime around the end of September (COVID-pending).

I had left my house that morning with no expectation of buying a dress. I fully expected to get a feel, make a list, and head out again over the next few months. I was apparently the only one with that thought.

 “I knew it,” my sister said. “I knew you would find something today. That’s why I came. I know your personality.” She was right. She always is. 

Before leaving the boutique, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Paris.

“I proposed 20 days ago, and today you’re wedding dress shopping… you want to marry me so bad.”

He’s right. I do want to marry him so bad. I’m lucky he wants to marry me so bad right back and tells me as much every day.

So Austin’s message of congratulations was right. Second time is the charm. When I stepped into each of the bridal salons last week, the chipper women at the front desk would ask who the bride was. Each time I announced without hesitation it was me. When they asked how I met my fiancé, I told them we matched on Bumble. It sounds a lot better than saying, “We met after I blew up my life.”

QUESTIONS FROM YOU – Things To Talk About When You’re Actively Dying

This week’s question is from Ryan H. who asks:

Two-part question!

1.     How do death bed confessions work? As people approach death in general, cognitive abilities tend to deteriorate as well. If there is evidence of decreased cognitive function, are statements taken more or less seriously? Are the things they admit to used for evidence or put into the public record for unsolved crimes? What if they were a person of interest?

2.     Second part, what if the dying person discloses classified information? For example, let’s say Grandpa J Allen Hynek gushes out all of this info about UFOs to his family/nurses before passing away. Are they now legally bound to keep that information to themselves, or can they disclose this whenever because they did not take an oath/sign papers agreeing to keep the UFO information confidential? (I assume the medical staff would need to maintain confidentiality regardless due to HIPPA). Thanks a bunch!

Great questions, Ryan! Let’s break them down.

How Do Death Bed Confessions Work?

First, the concept of a deathbed confession is not really a legal one. Though people can confess to crimes as they’re dying, they can just as easily confess the location of a hidden family treasure, or that they never really liked their third child, or that they were secretly in love with someone besides their spouse all along.

Death Bed Confessions in Court

In the legal sense, death bed confessions can be used in court as an exception to the hearsay rule, but only in limited circumstances. The confusing and convoluted legal definition of hearsay is generally accepted as “an out of court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” In normal human speak, it is he-said, she-said offered as evidence at trial to prove that a fact is true.

For instance, if you saw me do a crime, you could testify to that fact, right? But what if you told your mom that you saw me do a crime, then the prosecutors wanted your mom to testify? That wouldn’t fly under the prohibition on hearsay. Your mom is testifying about something you said to her; not something she saw.

This is important because we all have a Sixth Amendment right to be confronted with the witnesses against us. This means having a meaningful opportunity to cross-examine someone who testifies against you. If your mom wants to testify that you told her that I did a crime, that violates my constitutional right because I wouldn’t have an opportunity to ask you - the witness to my actions - any questions.

Exceptions to Hearsay

But what if you weren’t available to testify that I did the crime, and all the prosecutor had to go on was your mom’s testimony? Under the Federal Rules of Evidence (“FRE”), which many states’ rules of evidence mirror, there are certain exceptions to hearsay when the declarant – in this case, you – are unavailable. One of these is a dying declaration. The FRE call it a “Statement Under the Belief of Imminent Death”.

In a prosecution for homicide, a statement from the victim who believes that they are imminently dying, is admissible if the statement is about the cause or circumstances of the victim’s death.

This means if the crime that you saw me do was attacking you so hard you thought you were going to immediately die (sorry about that!!), then a statement you make to your mom about how you ended up wounded would be admissible.

If there is evidence of decreased cognitive function, are statements taken more or less seriously?

The whole theory behind dying declarations are that a dying person has no reason to lie. A 1789 case in England called The King v. Woodcock allowed testimony of a dying woman about the cause of her death (beating by her husband, sadly). The court reasoned that “when the party is at the point of death, and when every hope of this world is gone: when every motive to falsehood is silenced, and the mind is induced by the most powerful considerations to speak the truth.”

The idea of allowing dying declarations is also related to religion, with courts reasoning that a person on their deathbed is less likely to lie, given they’re quickly on their way to meet the great judge in the sky.

Arguments by legal scholars against dying declarations are in line with your question. Dying declarations are perhaps not as reliable as courts have believed for centuries. Like you asked – what if someone has mentally declined, either before their death or in connection with their imminent death? What if someone has a grudge, are not as religious as courts would hope, and they use their last dying breath to lie about someone else or clear their own name?

Those are the reasons that some legal scholars think dying declarations aren’t trustworthy enough to be automatically considered exceptions to hearsay. Nevertheless, courts still allow them regularly so long as they fit the requirements of the rule.

Are the things they admit used for evidence or put into the public record for unsolved crimes?

Sometimes, yes, information from deathbed confessions can been used to solve unsolved crimes.

This actually happened in New Hampshire in the late 1980s. A 61-year-old man named Clifton Chambers confessed to his daughter, Melissa, that he helped his son, Robert, bury the body of a man Robert killed in a fight. Clifton instructed Melissa to tell the police his story once he was dead. The next day, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died.

Melissa fulfilled her father’s wishes, telling police that the now-dead man confessed to her that he helped bury the body of the man his own son (and her brother) killed. Police obtained a search warrant, dug up the son’s front yard, and 25 feet in the ground found the body of the victim, Russell Bean, who had been buried for a decade.

Though the daughter’s report led to the search warrant and the discovery of the body, a grand jury failed to indict Robert Chambers because of lack of admissible evidence.

In that case, the police acted on the death bed confession of the elder Chambers, but the court was not able to admit it as evidence since it was hearsay that did not fall into an exception. It was not made imminently, as Papa Chambers didn’t die until a day after saying it. It was also not regarding the circumstances of his death.

Though he was not indicted, the younger Mr. Chambers was later sentenced to 25 years in jail for sexual assault, totally unrelated to the murder he allegedly committed decades earlier.

In this case, the confession “solved” the case in a sense, although it did not lead to a conviction.

What if the death bed confessor was a person of interest?

This actually happened in the JonBenét Ramsey case. Glenn Meyer lived in the basement of the house across the street from the Ramseys and was, according to his ex-wife, “obsessed” with JonBenét. An attendee at the party the Ramseys threw the night of JonBenét’s murder confessed on her death bed that she saw Meyer approaching the Ramsey house the night of the party. John Ramsey also remembers Meyer approaching the house that night, but didn’t recall why.

Once Meyer died, his ex-wife Charlotte Hey told the National Enquirer that her ex-husband confessed to killing JonBenét. (Warning: link contains graphic photos).

For some, this answered the question of who killed JonBenét Ramsey. Others think it was fabricated by the ex-wife for revenge. Still yet, even if Meyer did confess, the National Enquirer reported he was suffering from dementia and had developed an obsession with JonBenet in his later years.

You can see the issue with a death bed confession in this case. It doesn’t really “solve” anything. Even if Meyer was telling the truth, he is dead and can never be convicted.

Now to your second question…

What if the dying person discloses classified information?

The espionage statute makes intentionally disclosing classified information without authorization a federal crime. Conviction can result in a jail sentence of up to ten years in prison, a fine, or could treason charges.

If, however, you’re dying, I don’t suppose it much matters. Spill all the classified beans you want. The federal government has no jurisdiction in the afterlife.

FOR EXAMPLE: let’s say Grandpa J Allen Hynek gushes out all of this info about UFOs to his family/nurses before passing away. Are they now legally bound to keep that information to themselves, or can they disclose this whenever because they did not take an oath/sign papers agreeing to keep the UFO information confidential?

In this example, let’s assume Grandpa Hynek has security clearance and breached it in revealing the information to his family/nurses. His family would then be in possession of government secrets. Under the espionage statute at 18 USC Section 793, the federal government contends that it can prosecute both government officials and private citizens for releasing certain types of classified information.

Section 793(e) covers folks with “unauthorized possession” of information, and makes it a crime to willfully communicate, deliver, or transmit information relating to the national defense that the person has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States to “any person not entitled to receive it.” That’s a pretty broad law. Some commentators believe it is overly broad, so much so that it violates the First Amendment.

This means that, even though the family members didn’t sign an oath or anything, the broad federal statute covering classified information may make them criminally liable should they disclose it to “any person not entitled to receive it.”

Somebody better tell the Hynek family to keep those alien secrets to themselves!

Thanks for the questions, Ryan!

Got a question? Submit it here. They can be legal what-if questions, questions on current events, or questions about the legality of actions in TV shows or movies you’ve seen. I never ever want to answer your personal legal questions, so don't send those. Love you, but I don’t do that.

Until next week, that’s the tea, and don’t tell alien secrets you learned from your grandpappy.

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