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Court rules against defendant on Sixth Amendment issue

Posted on in Criminal Defense

The United States Supreme Court ruled on Monday that statements made during an ongoing emergency may be introduced as evidence in a criminal trial even if the person that made the statements has died before the trial. Santa Cruz criminal defense attorneys know that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to confront the witnesses against the defendant at trial. The right to confrontation includes the right to cross examine the witness.

Monday's Supreme Court ruling says the statements introduced at trial of an alleged murder victim through the testimony of police officers did not violate the defendant's right to confrontation. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a scathing dissent. Justice Scalia says Monday's ruling distorts the high court's "Confrontation Clause jurisprudence and leaves it in a shambles." Justice Scalia goes on to say majority opinion demeans the Supreme Court.

The case arose out of an incident that happened in Detroit in 2001. Police responded to a report of a shooting. Several police officers responded and found a man who had been shot lying near his car in a gas station parking lot. Each officer asked the man several questions. The man reportedly told police the identity of the man who allegedly shot him. The man died later that morning at the hospital.

Police officers were allowed to tell the jury what the victim allegedly said while lying in the parking lot. Essentially, the victim allegedly identified the man who shot him, and where the shooting allegedly took place. The shooting occurred several blocks from the gas station parking lot. The trial court allowed the statements to be introduced at trial as excited utterances. The jury found the defendant guilty of murder.

On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals and Michigan Supreme Court each ruled that the statements the victim allegedly said were introduced at trial in violation of the defendant's right to confrontation. The state appellate rulings reversed the murder conviction. Prosecutors appealed the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, accused persons can confront witnesses who testify against them. But there are exceptions and extenuating circumstances that make such statements admissible, Justice Sonia Sotomayor writes in the majority opinion.

The U.S. Supreme Court says courts must make an objective evaluation of the facts to determine the primary purpose of the police questioning. Police take statements with a view toward "ending a threatening situation" in an ongoing emergency, not toward prosecution.

Under circumstances that involve an ongoing emergency a witness is less likely to fabricate statements. The high court says "the Confrontation Clause does not require such statements to be subject to the crucible of cross-examination." "This logic is not unlike that justifying the excited utterance exception in hearsay law," Justice Sotomayor writes.

The majority ruled that because police questioned the victim during an ongoing emergency, the statements the victim made were not testimonial. The Court ruled that the admission of the statements at trial did not offend the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.

Justice Scalia sees the case differently. Justice Scalia writes "five officers conducting successive examinations of a dying man with the primary purpose, not of obtaining and preserving his testimony regarding his killer, but of protecting him, them, and others from a murderer somewhere on the loose-is so transparently false that professing to believe it demeans this institution."

Source: United States Supreme Court, "Michigan v. Bryant," 28 Feb 2011

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