U.S. Supreme Court- Defendants Can Confront Crime Lab Technicians

29 Jun

On Thursday, June 25, 2009, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision providing that defendants have the right to cross-examine forensic experts.  In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U.S. ___ (2009) (read the full opinion here), the high court, in a 5-4 decision, held that the admission of certificates from forensic scientists, which stated that the substance found on a defendant was cocaine, were not sufficient to satisfy the confrontation clause in the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

 

In the trial, the government offered, and the trial court admitted, certificates in which forensic scientists swore that the substance was cocaine.  The defendant objected that the admission of the certificates violated his right to confrontation as recognized in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004).  The trial court overruled the defendant’s objection based on state law allowing such certificates as prima facie evidence of the composition and weight of a narcotic. 

 

The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Scalia, stated that the case was a simple application of Crawford (which Justice Scalia also authored) and that evidence against a defendant that is testimonial, which these certificates were, must be subject to cross examination.  The Supreme Court dismissed an attempt by the government to claim that the documents admitted were not testimonial because they were actually certificates, rather than affidavits.

 

The dissent of Justices Kennedy, Roberts, Breyer and Alito, believed the majority holding overruled an accepted practice as to scientific analysis and that there were already “ample protections against the misuse of scientific evidence.”  The dissent distinguished these types of affidavits from personal testimony, such as that which was at issue in Crawford.

 

Author:
This blog entry is written by Chris Renz, a shareholder at Thomsen & Nybeck, P.A. Chris practices in the litigation area of the firm with primary focus on real estate litigation, employment litigation, townhome and condominium law, and criminal law, particularly as the prosecutor for the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

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