Mar 12, 2011

SCOTUS Erodes Witness Confrontation Requirement

This case was straight out of Detroit.  Anthony Covington was lying next to his car at a gas station, shot in the stomach, bleeding out, but still alive and speaking with the Detroit Police.

Just before he died, he identified Rick Bryant as his shooter.  Bryant's subsequent conviction, based largely on the dying man's identification, went all the way to the SCOTUS and was decided last month.

Conviction affirmed; and in the process, one of the many exceptions to the hearsay rule is broadly expanded at the expense of accused persons everywhere.

The 6-2 decision in Michigan v Bryant erodes the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment requiring that all witnesses against an accused be brought to court.  Surprisingly, Justice Sotomayor wrote for the majority; Justice Giinsburg recused herself; and just as surprisingly, Justice Scalia wrote in dissent.

This case is significant to the extent that it allows police officers to testify at a trial about what an out-of-court (i.e. hearsay) witness said when that witness is no longer available for purposes of cross-examination and in-court confrontation.  Whether a dying man's declaration comes into evidence at a criminal trial depends on the "testimonial" nature of his utterance.

Prior SCOTUS decisions have addressed this problem.  Until now, two domestic violence cases established each end of the continuum.

In the well-known case of Davis v Washington, the declarant's statment -made during a 911 call- was admitted because the emergency was ongoing when the statement was made.  The presence of the emergency made the statement non-testimonial and thus, admissible in court even though the declarant was not present at the trial.

On the other hand, when a statement is made after the emergency is extinguished, as in Hammond v Indiana, then such a statement is clearly testimonial; that witness must be brought into court, or the statement is excluded from trial.  The witness in Hammond made her statement from the safety of her home during a subsequent police visit. 

The Bryant Court constructs a complicated two-perspective test to determine the "testimonial" nature of a dying man's declaration.  A reviewing court must now consider both the declarant's primary purpose in uttering the statement, along with the recipient's purpose in receiving the statement.  Say what??

Writing for the dissent, Justice Scalia, not usually a champion for the defense but an ardent supporter of the confrontation clause, thinks the question "is an absurdly easy one".  The murder victim from Detroit, in his last breath, was telling the Detroit Police who shot him so they could apprehend the shooter; not to stop any "emergency".  Therefore, the statement was testimonial in nature and should not be admissible in court according to Scalia's analysis.

Seems like each year SCOTUS issues at least one decision from Detroit and the surrounding area that has a local murder at issue.  Last year it was Warden Berguhis v Thompkins; this year it's Rick Bryant's case.

Kinda sad that we're known for the laws that get spawned from these murders.

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