Supreme Confrontation: Impact of the Court’s lab report decision
Defenders hail ruling, prosecutors say drug offenders will go free
By Kimberly Atkins and David E. Frank
Published: June 26, 2009
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruling requiring criminal lab report analysts to be available at trial for cross-examination was hailed by defense attorneys who say it will help protect against wrongful convictions.
But prosecutors say that the decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts will tax their already strapped resources, and ultimately lead to more cases against alleged drug offenders being dropped altogether.
“Because of this ruling and the practical consequences of requiring chemists to testify in all of these trials, there are going to be cases called in courtrooms that end up getting dismissed, and that’s frustrating,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who argued the case and urged the Court to allow the reports to be admitted on their own.
Instead, in a 5-4 ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that forensic reports, commonly used in the prosecution of drug and other offenses, are subject to the Confrontation Clause, meaning that the technicians who prepare them must be available at trial to be cross-examined by the defense.
Scalia wrote that such reports fall within the “core class of testimonial statements” that are subject to the Confrontation Clause under the Court’s rulings in the 2004 case Crawford v. Washington and the 2006 case Davis v. Washington.
“In short, under our decision in Crawford the analysts’ affidavits were testimonial statements, and the analysts were ‘witnesses’ for purposes of the Sixth Amendment,” Scalia wrote. “Absent a showing that the analysts were unavailable to testify at trial and that [the defendant] had a prior opportunity to cross-examine them, [the defendant] was entitled to ‘be confronted with’ the analysts at trial.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy penned a strong dissent joined by three other justices in the closely-split ruling.
Kennedy said that the majority ignored nearly a century of criminal jurisprudence where such reports were allowed in most of the nation’s courts as a matter of course.
“This rule has been established for at least 90 years,” Kennedy wrote. “It extends across at least 35 states and six federal courts of appeals. Yet the court undoes it based on two recent opinions that say nothing about forensic analysts.”
Good news for defendants
Defense attorneys said the right to cross-examine lab report analysts is crucial, and noted that the opinion itself states that “serious deficiencies have been found in the forensic evidence used at criminal trials” and that cross-examination will “weed out not only the fraudulent analyst, but the incompetent one as well.”
“The Supreme Court rejected the notion that forensic science is always neutral and based on solid science,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York.
“The Court said our criminal justice system can’t rely blindly on forensic analysts’ reports because they may distort results to favor the prosecution.”
Defense attorney groups and Scalia noted that the need to protect against inaccurate forensic reports was supported by a report earlier this year from the National Academy of Sciences, which said that most crime labs are administered by law enforcement agencies. The academy has also asked Congress to create a new agency to set and enforce uniform standards for forensic analysts to follow in preparing reports for court.
Jeffrey T. Green, a partner in Sidley Austin’s Washington office, who wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the ruling will not bring the parade of horribles prosecutors claim.
“At the end of the day, we will have a better system of justice and rules” because of Melendez-Diaz, said Green.
He also said that the rules for admitting evidence are no different in other kinds of cases. “In traffic cases, the prosecutor can’t just introduce [evidence] of the police radar,” Green said. “The officer who made the stop has to show up.”
However, Coakley said that the low numbers of crime lab technicians and tight budgets make drug prosecutions a very different matter.
“These chemists who work in the labs and produce the certificates are overburdened as it is,” she said. “Now as a result of this ruling [they] are going to have to take time out of their day to travel around the state and sit around for hours or days in individual courthouses waiting to see if the case gets called. That’s simply not practical."
BLOGGER'S NOTE: Prosecutors actually made the argument here that to require lab analysts to testify - so that people accused of crimes by the government actually get a fair chance to test the evidence - would be too much of a burdenon the labs and prosecutors. Boo hoo. Follow the rules, boys. If you want to prosecute, you'd better be able to provide the evidence for a thorough cross examination. Well done, Supremes.
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