Selected writings of A. Jackson Howe.
The real worth of a dying declaration is not comprehended alike by all persons. One would be inclined to put all faith in the absolute truth of words uttered by those about to be ushered into eternity. In law such a statement is given a certain value. There are circumstances, however, that the scientific man will weigh long and thoughtfully before he can accept in full the truthfulness of some dying declarations. Some of these are discussed by Professor Howe. This is another fragment of medico-legal study with which he frequently supplied the Journal.—Ed. Gleaner.
A DYING DECLARATION.—It is well known that a person in a dying condition may make a confession of crime to a physician or other responsible person which shall have the credibility of a statement made under oath. The solemnity of the occasion is thought to be impressive enough to make it an object to tell the truth, there being no earthly inducement to prevaricate. While declarations made in a dying state carry very great weight with them, and are generally accepted as legitimate evidence, eminent jurists have raised valid objections to such kind of testimony. There is no opportunity to cross-question the witness, and otherwise to throw light on obscure features of the case. For instance, a woman about to die of miscarriage might say that a certain physician had used instruments upon her, and thus leave the impression that he has done so to effect abortion, when in fact he had used instruments for an entirely innocent purpose.
It is now ruled that a dying declaration is applicable only to the party directly implicated. For instance, a woman declaring that her approaching demise was occasioned by the act of an abortionist, and naming the party doing the deed, might also say that on other occasions she had miscarried at the instance of another physician, naming him, yet it would be ruled that the latter was not in danger of prosecution from the utterance.
A man in a dying state might declare that a certain individual assisted him in a murder or burglary, yet lie in the declaration; he might be influenced by an old grudge, or have a desire to bring a reputable person into complicity with his own guilty or criminal acts. He might reason that an intimacy with a person of good character would help his own.
Then again, a person in a dying state at the end of a prolonged sickness, might be laboring under delusion induced by disease or medicine. Opiates create pictures in the imagination that may seem real. Death is often preceded by delirium.
The above is not written to lessen the importance of testimony involved in a dying declaration, but to awaken a caution in the mind of the physician who may take evidence from the lips of his patient presumed to be moribund. He can not offer it in court without subjecting himself to a searching cross-examination.— HOWE, Eclectic Medical Journal, 1884.
The Biographies of King, Howe, and Scudder, 1912, was written by Harvey Wickes Felter, M. D.