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Ward v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia
Sep 5, 1975
217 S.E.2d 810 (Va. 1975)

Summary

In Ward v. Commonwealth, 216 Va. 177, 217 S.E.2d 810 (1975), upon which defendant expressly relied when he raised the objection below, we held that a statement recorded in a medical examiner's postmortem report concerning the "probable cause of death" was "an expression of opinion" and, since only statements of fact are within the purview of the statutory exception, the opinion "was incompetent to show the cause of... death."

Summary of this case from Bond v. Commonwealth

Opinion

43241 Record No. 741101.

September 5, 1975

Present, All the Justices.

Manslaughter — Autopsy Report — Cause of Death.

Medical examiner's report on post mortem examination, while admissible in evidence, is prima facie evidence only of facts stated therein. Examiner's statement in report on cause of death was an expression of opinion which, standing alone, was incompetent to show cause of death. Since there was no other proof of cause of death, verdict cannot stand.

Error to a judgment of the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond, Division I. Hon. J. Randolph Tucker, Jr., judge presiding.

Reversed and remanded.

John Dirffie Tyler, for plaintiff in error.

Alan Katz, Assistant Attorney General (Andrew P. Miller, Attorney General, on brief), for defendant in error.


A jury convicted John Lewis Ward of voluntary manslaughter and fixed his punishment at three years in the penitentiary.

During an argument on November 26, 1973, Ward shot Benjamin Daniel in the head. Daniel remained in the hospital until his death on February 6, 1974. Dr. R. C. Henry, Medical Examiner for the City of Richmond, performed a post-mortem examination. His report listed six "pathological diagnoses" and cited "[g]unshot wound of head" as the "probable cause of death." Dr. Henry died before Ward was brought to trial.

Over defendant's objection, the autopsy report Was admitted into evidence; it was the only proof of the cause of death.

While autopsy reports and duly attested copies thereof are admissible in evidence as provided in Code Sec. 19.1-45 (Repl. Vol. 1960), "only facts contained in the certificate are accorded the dignity of prima facie evidence." Robertson v. Commonwealth, 211 Va. 62, 67-8, 175 S.E.2d 260, 264(1970). Although signed by the decedent's attending physician, a statement in a death certificate concerning the cause of death "was but the expression of an opinion" and "was not, therefore, competent to show the cause of the decedent's death." Edwards v. Jackson, 210 Va. 450, 453, 171 S.E.2d 854, 856 (1970). We have only recently declined to extend the shopbook exception to the hearsay rule to "include opinions and conclusions of physicians or others recorded in hospital records." Neeley v. Johnson, 215 Va. 565, 571, 211 S.E.2d 100, 106(1975).

"Sec. 19.1.45. Reports and records received as evidence. Reports of investigations made by the Chief Medical Examiner or his assistants or by medical examiners, and the records and reports of autopsies made under the authority of this chapter, shall be received as evidence in any court or other proceeding, and copies of records, photographs, laboratory findings and records in the office of the Chief Medical Examiner or any medical examiner, when duly attested by the Chief Medical Examiner or one of his Assistant Chief Medical Examiners, or the medical examiner in whose office the same are, shall be received as evidence in any court or other proceeding for any purpose for which the original could be received without any proof of the official character or the person whose name is signed thereto."

Dr. Henry's recorded statement was an expression of opinion and, standing alone, was incompetent to show the cause of Daniel's death. Since there was no other proof of the cause of death, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict. The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded for a new trial if the Commonwealth be so advised.

Reversed and remanded.


Summaries of

Ward v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia
Sep 5, 1975
217 S.E.2d 810 (Va. 1975)

In Ward v. Commonwealth, 216 Va. 177, 217 S.E.2d 810 (1975), upon which defendant expressly relied when he raised the objection below, we held that a statement recorded in a medical examiner's postmortem report concerning the "probable cause of death" was "an expression of opinion" and, since only statements of fact are within the purview of the statutory exception, the opinion "was incompetent to show the cause of... death."

Summary of this case from Bond v. Commonwealth

In Ward the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that a statement as to the cause of death in the medical examiner's report was inadmissible because "[the] recorded statement was an expression of opinion and, standing alone, was incompetent to show the cause of [the decedent's] death."

Summary of this case from Corrales v. Commonwealth
Case details for

Ward v. Commonwealth

Case Details

Full title:JOHN LEWIS WARD, JR. v. COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

Court:Supreme Court of Virginia

Date published: Sep 5, 1975

Citations

217 S.E.2d 810 (Va. 1975)
217 S.E.2d 810

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