News 11.12.08

A Forensic Case Ignites the Blawgosphere

Bloggers around the world are focused on forensics this week, after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument Monday in the case of

Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachusetts

. The case turns on whether criminal defendants have a Constitutional right to cross-examine lab analysts that conducted forensic testing in their case.

During oral arguments on Monday, Justice Stephen Breyer cited the friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Innocence Network, which argued that denying defendants the chance to challenge forensic evidence against them raised the chance of a wrongful conviction.

Read more case details, and download the Innocence Network brief, here

.

 

Here’s a sample of what bloggers are saying:


Lyle Denniston writes at the SCOTUS Blog

that this case, like so many others, could swing on the vote of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy:

The case, at its core, is simple: is a crime lab report a form of testimony, so that the prosecution may not use it at trial to buttress its case unless the technician or chemist who prepared it is at the trial to defend the test results under cross-examination?

Kennedy initially saw a potential problem if the Court were to answer yes to that question.  He foresaw ”a very substantial burden” on the prosecution and on the courts, and told counsel advocating for confrontation that he was significantly underestimating the impact.  But, as the hearing moved along, Kennedy saw as “a very important point” that California has not experienced such a burden and “gets along all right” with summoning lab analysts to the stand with some frequency. He faulted the two lawyers arguing against confrontation for lacking a rationale that would keep the prosecution’s use of unexamined lab reports in check.


Preaching to the Choir

writes that this case “ought to be a no-brainer”:

The 6th Amendment protects the right of criminal defendants to confront their accusers. It's obvious that an eyewitness who will testify he saw you commit the crime is an accuser as is the police officer who found the baggie of white powder in your coat pocket. But what about the lab tech who tested that white powder and decided it was cocaine? Well, isn't the person who says the stuff you had is illegal just as much of an accuser as the person who says you had it? Like I said, it seems pretty obvious to me.

And

Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast

points out that Justice Antonin Scalia was the most ardent supporter of requiring analysts to testify:

Justice Scalia was the most ardent champion of requiring confrontation, reports Denniston, while the main concerns were pragmatic: Would the requirement overburden crime labs that in most cases (as in Texas) already experience significant backlogs? Even so, Scalia agreed with the argument put forward by Melendez-Diaz's attorney, as quoted in USA Today:

"Introducing forensic laboratory reports (without live witnesses) is the modern equivalent of trial by affidavit," said Stanford University law professor Jeffrey Fisher, representing Luis Melendez-Diaz

And Steve Hall of the StandDown Texas Project

summarized more coverage from blogs and some mainstream media outlets

.

 

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