Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Pragmatism vs. Confrontation frames SCOTUS' lab report debate

From this excellent SCOTUSBlog analysis, it sounds like Justice Kennedy and a majority on the high court in the Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachussetts case are leaning toward requiring crime lab workers to testify instead of just forwarding their written lab reports. Wrote SCOTUSBlog's Lyle Denniston :
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?
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
Indeed, pragmatic concerns about lab volume - not any legal argument - appeared to be the primary factor weighing in the state's favor, reported the Boston Globe:

The justices acknowledged that their decision could have far-reaching effects on the backlog and workload at crime labs nationally.

"This is a very, very substantial burden" if the court rules that states must have analysts testify at trials, Justice Anthony Kennedy said.

Requiring chemists to testify at trials would "dramatically" increase the backlog at Massachusetts' laboratories, said Emily LaGrassa, a spokeswoman in the attorney general's office. The office could not provide a more specific estimate. The Department of Public Health employs 15 chemists to analyze substances and has a 600-case backlog, LaGrassa said.

The justices pointed to California's system, in which drug analysis certificates can be admitted as evidence only if the analyst who prepares the report testifies, or if the defense stipulates that the reports can be admitted without testimony. When asked why Massachusetts couldn't function under a similar system, Coakley said she was not familiar enough with the California system.

The Massachussetts Attorney General was unprepared for some of the Justices' questions, in particular embarrassing herself somewhat when she couldn't explain how states that already required confrontation - like California with its massive justice system - operated without any of the unintended consequences she ruefully predicted if the court decided in the defendant's favor.

The case will be decided by next spring. Here's a link to the transcript (pdf), an amicus brief (pdf) from the National Innocence Network cited by Justice Breyer, another oft-mentioned amicus brief (pdf) from 35 states and the District of Columbia, plus a roundup of related coverage so far:

See also prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Only a very small fraction of criminal cases go to trial. The burden on the Justice System shouldn't be that daunting.

Anonymous said...

A great deal of the backlog experienced in Texas could be avoided if the District Attorneys in Texas practiced better discretion. Way too many innocent people are prosecuted and put through trial. For example, in Galveston the arrest rate after factoring in a daily population of commuters and tourists is 11.8 percent per capita. In NYC the same arrest rate factoring in daily population of commuters and tourists is 2.5%. New York is the safest big city in the world.

BTW, NYC became safe only after Rudy Giuiliani rooted out endemic police corruption (in some precintcs 25% of officers were on the take. Amazing how getting rid of bad police officers can help transform one of the most dangerous big cities in America to the safest in the world.

123txpublicdefender123 said...

Justice Brennan, Scott? I wish he were still around, but I think you might have meant someone else.

FWIW, here in Washington, the law allows just the report unless the defense demands the actual person who did the test in person ahead of time. Consequently, our office demands the actual person who did the test appear in our initial notice of appearance and discovery demand in every case. I think it is pretty standard practice for defense attorneys here. And, it has hardly ground things to a halt here. Oh, and we have had crime lab scandals up here as well related to the testing of breathalyzer calibration sample solutions--it's caused lots of test results to be thrown out in various counties.

Oh, and Martha Coakley? She was the prosecutor in the infamous Fells Acres daycare mass child sexual abuse that never happened case. My opinion of her is not particularly high.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good catch, 123 - I meant Justice Breyer and must have just had a brain fart when I typed it. I fixed it in the post.

On Coakley, the moment I saw she was arguing it herself I suspected she may blow it, and it seems like she didn't do a great job. Lots of times elected pols will argue these cases because it's their one shot as lawyers to argue before SCOTUS, but it'd be a lot wiser to hire experienced appellate counsel who argue before the court all the time. Chuck Rosenthal made the same mistake in the Lawrence v. Texas case over banning homosexuality - he insisted on arguing it himself then did a really poor job and lost.

123txpublicdefender123 said...

Yes, and for that reason, I'm all for these elected state attorneys general and local DAs arguing all their criminal cases in front of SCOTUS! ;) I remember reading the reviews of Rosenthal's performance (some people were speculating that he intentionally threw the case!). I would say that was a lowpoint of his tenure, but we're talking about Rosenthal here.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, 123, I'd say Rosenthal's "low-point" was when he publicly admitted that his physician Dr. Siegler, husband to a trusted, high-profile lieutenant in his office, was writing scrips for prescription drugs to which the DA admits he became seriously addicted to the point that it affected his judgment at work and had to resign.

Alternatively, the discovery of Dr. Siegler and Rosenthal sending lewd and racist emails back and forth to one another via Rosenthal's county computer (which he tried to illegally delete to keep from handing over to plaintiffs during civil litigation) should also be on the short list for potential lowest moments. Especially since his physician's wife, Kelly Siegler, probably lost the Republican primary because of the email revelations and her family's close association with her boss.

Flubbing Lawrence may have been his low point as a lawyer, but a a politician it looks like a footnote compared to the spectacular way Chuck Rosenthal flamed out at the end!

It's no wonder Lykos wants to restore "integrity" to the office. I was just amazed to see her say it was necessary to restore the "rule of law"! I agree, but it's shocking to hear the DA-elect say it.

Anonymous said...

I think the lab technician ought to have to testify in EVERY case with no exceptions. I do not have much legal knowledge but I would hope that such testifying would include the opportunity for vigorous cross examination.

This is a matter of authenticating evidence. Evidence of every kind needs to be authenticated.

For example, video evidence needs to be testified to by the videographer and that videographer needs to swear to the authenticity of the smallest component of the video including every pixel.

I wonder if these laboratories have had any employees try to bring forward a whistle blower case.

Too many people will keep silent to hold on to their jobs.

Chances for justice sink right along with the sinking economy and sinking ship of state.

Anonymous said...

To the poster immediately above:

I agree! And as a lawyer's kid, let me tell you, the myth of legal knowledge is a bogus concept. All lawyering requires is the ability to read (case law, statues, decisions) and a sense of justice and logic. The rest is just testing, going through some classes, and bureaucracy.

Your opinions are worthy, clear and sound. Thank you for your voice.

debate popular said...

Well I think that inefficiency in the processes as well as the maniplaciĆ³n of law are also a form of corruption