U.S. Supreme Court to Revisit the Confrontation Clause... Again

U.S. Supreme Court to Revisit the Confrontation Clause... Again

staircase
Staircase at US Supreme Court by RLHyde

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the potentially monumental case of Williams v. Illinoisyesterday. The case involves a laboratory test in a rape case. A sample of Williams' DNA was sent to a lab in Maryland where it was tested. The result proved that Williams' DNA matched the DNA of a rape assailant. At his trial, an analyst with the Illinois State Police Laboratory testified about the DNA and how the DNA taken from the assailant in the rape case matched the DNA taken from Williams. The analyst admitted that the DNA sample was tested in a Maryland laboratory and that she never touched it, but that she did an independent review of the findings in her preparation as an expert witness. Williams was convicted and appealed. The Illinois Court of Appeals affirmed stating that the analyst was testifying as an expert and that the Maryland test results were never entered into evidence. Since there was an opportunity for cross-examination of the analyst, the Court saw no error in the proceedings.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to revisit the Confrontation Clause as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. The Confrontation Clause provides a Defendant with the right to confront their accusers; particularly the right to cross-examine them at trial. The big issue for Williams is whether it is a violation of the Confrontation Clause that the actual technician who tested the DNA sample was not at trial and could not be cross-examined.
This is not a new issue before the Supreme Court. In fact, there have been two very recent opinions regarding issues of the Confrontation Clause: Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts and Bullcoming v. New Mexico. Melendez-Diaz stood for the principle that laboratory results are "testimonial" and that the defendant's Sixth Amendment rights were violated because the technician who handled the lab results had not testified. Bullcoming involved the same issue, but the lab technician who ran and handled the tests for a blood alcohol sample was on unpaid leave at the time of the trial. The testimony came from another analyst who was familiar with the testing process but did not touch the actual sample. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that this was a violation of the Confrontation Clause.
The dissenters in both Bullcoming and Melendez-Diaz stated fears that due to the majorities' holding, guilty criminals would go free because a lab technician couldn't be at trial. They also worried about the effect the holdings would have on the demand for technicians in court. The already long waiting period for lab results will undoubtedly increase if all the technicians are under Court-ordered Subpoena. The question for the dissenters becomes, what happens when a lab technician is permanently unavailable? Does that then mean that the lab result will never be admitted at trial?
Many are hoping these questions will be answered in Williams v. Illinois. Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and law professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law, wrote an article on Williams for the ABA Journal. He stated that if the Court were to affirm Williams' conviction, experts can then testify based on a laboratory report without it actually being entered into evidence. If the Court chooses to reverse the Illinois courts, he says, then prosecutors will not know what to do in cases where a technician is unavailable or in a case such as this, where there are multiple steps and multiple technicians involved in the process.
Chemerinsky provides a little perspective regarding this issue when he says, "the underlying basic question is: how much should practical consequences matter in interpreting a provision like the Confrontation Clause?"
It will certainly be an interesting case to watch. We'll keep you updated on its progress throughout the upcoming Supreme Court season.
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