Solving the State of Mind Puzzle

16 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2023

See all articles by Stephen A. Saltzburg

Stephen A. Saltzburg

George Washington University School of Law

Date Written: January 21, 2023


Courts have had enormous difficulty since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York v. Hillmon, 145 U.S. 285 (1892), in deciding when one person’s statement of an intention to do something in the future may be admitted in evidence to prove what a third party did. The case turned on whether the body of a deceased male was that of John Hillmon, whose wife Sally sought to collect on insurance policies, or Frederick Adolph Walters. The Supreme Court wrote that Frederick Adolph Walter’s letters to his sister and his fiancé stating that he intended “to leave Wichita on or about March the 5th, with a certain Mr. Hillmon, a sheep trader, for Colorado or parts unknown to me” were admissible to prove “he had the intention of going, and of going with Hillmon, which made it more probable both that he did go and that he went with Hillmon than if there had been no proof of such intention.” Since that decision, commentators have disagreed as to whether the Court’s statement that Walters’ letters could be used to prove both his intent and actions and also that he was actually going to travel with Hillmon was holding or dictum.

After the Federal Rules of Evidence were submitted to Congress by the Supreme Court in 1972, Congress declined to take a position on the question of whether one persons’s statement of intent could be used to prove a third person’s actions. The report of the House Judiciary Committee stated that the Committee intended that Rule 803(3) be construed to limit the Hillmon doctrine “so as to render statements of intent by a declarant admissible only to prove his future conduct, not the future conduct of another person.” The Senate Report made no mention of this limitation.

Most of the decided cases have turned out to be criminal cases, and many courts have agreed with the House Judiciary Committee’s limitation on Hillmon. This article solves the Hillmon puzzle by pointing out a reason why in most cases one person’s statement of intent cannot be used to prove another person’s actions.

Suggested Citation

Saltzburg, Stephen A., Solving the State of Mind Puzzle (January 21, 2023). Available at SSRN: or

Stephen A. Saltzburg (Contact Author)

George Washington University School of Law ( email )

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