Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Res Gestae

Classicists know the phrase "Res Gestae" or "things done" in Latin as language that describes the achievements of an imperial polymath like Augustus Caesar, but the words have another specific meaning as a legal term in the present day United States. Res gestae describes one of a very small number of exceptions to rules against admitting hearsay, which originate in an English Common Law system that privileges eyewitness testimony. Res gestae is based on the convention that because certain kinds of statements are "made naturally, spontaneously and without deliberation during the course of an event, they leave little room for misunderstanding/misinterpretation upon hearing." The classic law school example is of the man who says "X shot me!" as his dying words or the woman who cries out "Y stabbed me!" in agonizing pain. Someone else can report hearing those statements without it being disallowed.

In the digital age, Res gestae has a new meaning, particularly as 9-1-1 calls become available for distribution to the public through electronic means. However, not all 9-1-1 calls record panicked or emotional sounding callers. Today, in "Tragic Catch 911 for a Dying Woman," The Los Angeles Times made available the remarkably calm emergency calls from a man who describes his girlfriend "vomiting blood" in the emergency room of the troubled Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital and complains that nurses and doctors are doing nothing to save her life. Unfortunately, the operator must explain to him through a translator that he is already in a hospital, so the paramedics can not come to his assistance. In the second 9-1-1 phone call that the Times has placed on their website, a bystander calls for help for the dying woman, and a dispatcher coldly tells her that if she has "a problem with the quality of the hospital," she must call a daytime complaint line. At the end of the phone call this frustrated would-be Good Samaritan tells the operator "May God strike you too."

Digital archives have also collected agonizing 9-1-1 calls from the terrified victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, like this one. However, for privacy reasons, relatively few of them are available online.

Emotional outbursts recorded in political contests, however, receive little respect from the public. When Howard Dean emitted his infamous "Dean screams," they were soon turned into humorous online remixes, even though they were clearly spontaneous results of natural enthusiasm.

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