Monday, February 8, 2010

Melendez-Diaz Upheld by Supreme Court

Last summer the U.S. Supreme Court created a stir in the criminal justice system. In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, petitioner challenged the admissibility of laboratory certificates prepared by a crime lab employed to test and analyze seized cocaine. In Illinois, the State Police crime lab does such work. Long story short, the prosecution was putting lab reports into evidence and not calling the actual technician to testify about what was in those reports.

I had yet to run into this, but that sounds like a hearsay document to me.

But apparently this practice has been going on in many jurisdictions for a long time. In this case the challenge was brought based on the 6th amendment's right to confront witnesses against you. This is also referred to as the Confrontation Clause.

The Supreme Court agreed with petitioner Melendez-Diaz and reversed his conviction. The split in the court was quite interesting. The final vote was 5-4. Justice Scalia wrote the opinion for the majority. He was joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg. The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Breyer, and Alito.

That is a very strange split.

Melendez-Diaz was decided before Sonia Sotomajor was seated on the court. There was speculation Melendez-Diaz might be overturned since Justice Souter retired.

Briscoe v. Virginia was the case some thought would reverse Melendez-Diaz. The issue in Briscoe was whether or not the burden could be shifted to the defendant to call the state's lab personnel as a defense witness. And if the defense does not call the witness, does that remove the state's obligation to present the witness for cross-examination?

It appears as though the holding in Melendez-Diaz is firmly entrenched. The court authored a one page decision in Briscoe, vacating the decision of the Supreme Court of Virginia. The case was remanded for proceedings consistent with Melendez-Diaz.

We in the defense bar loved Melendez-Diaz and especially in light of the recent National Academy of Sciences scathing report of forensics.

I was at a death penalty litigation seminar in late October. One of the speakers, Marvin Schechter, was on the committee that interviewed scientists in numerous fields from all over the world and wrote the report. Mr. Schechter was a very engaging speaker, New York accent and all.

It was at this seminar that I first learned of the NAS report and the problems with crime labs and forensics in general. I had no idea it was all such a mess. 

The message to defense attorneys is clear. In light of the NAS report and the holding in Melendez-Diaz, we should be objecting to admission and vigorously challenging scientific evidence whenever possible.


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