Dec 20, 2009

Lab Technicians Required to Provide In-Court Testimony, For Now

Last year, I prepared and argued a series of appeals for a man convicted in Washtenaw County of sexual assualts near Eastern Michigan University.  He received life sentences in six separate cases.

The primary issue in each case was identification.  Due to the way the victims were raped, they never saw their attacker's face.  Condoms and other precautions minimized physical evidence left at the respective crime scenes.

In one of the cases, however, Washtenaw County Sheriff detectives were able to recover a small semen sample.  The Michigan State Police crime lab contracted with an out-of-state forensic laboratory that produced a report concluding the sample matched the defendant's DNA.

At defendant's trial, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor called the MSP lab tech and the out-of-state lab tech to testify about the matching DNA.  On appeal, I argued that defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses was violated because the out-of-state lab tech relied on procedures and internal reports created from other technicians that were not present in court to testify.

Defendant's convictions were affirmed by the Michigan Court of Appeals and his petitions for writs of certiorari to the Michigan Supreme Court were denied last summer.  Around the same time, however, the United States Supreme Court decided Melendez-Diaz -v- Massachusetts.

In the Melendez-Diaz case, Suffolk County, Massachusetts law enforcement utilized lab "affidavits" concluding that a seized substance was cocaine.  The Supreme Court held that such an affidavit was insufficient to convict and that the lab technician must testify in open court.

In the few short months since the Melendez decision, law enforcement and prosecutors have raised an outcry about the increased costs and difficult logistics associated with producing the in-court testimony of lab techs.  The defense bar, on the other hand, has hailed the decision as a victory for individual constitutional rights.

In a rare move, the U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for January 2010 in Briscoe -v- Virginia; a case raising the same issue the high court so recently decided in Melendez-Diaz.  The New York Times has speculated that Briscoe will not overturn but rather, simply explain and clarify the Court's earlier ruling on lab technicians.  One such procedure would be to make lab technicians available for cross-examination rather than requiring their testimony in the prosecutor's case-in-chief.

At this date, my client is left with only a series of federal court habeas corpus petitions based on the Sixth Amendment.  Although his state-court remedies have been exhausted, the decisions of the United States Supreme Court, discussed above, will have a significant impact on his habeas petitions soon to be pending in federal court.

The slightly increased cost to the state of securing the in-court testimony of all the lab techs that worked on his DNA sample is a small price to pay for our collective constitutional liberties.

The goal of a criminal defense at trial is to force the government to prove the elements of their case.  The goal of all criminal appellate representation is to ensure that the defendant's trial and sentencing were fair. Without these safeguards, our Sixth Amendment right to counsel is meaningless.

1 comment:

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