Supreme Court rules dying victim's statement admissible at trial

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] 6-2 in Michigan v. Bryant [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that preliminary inquiries of a wounded citizen concerning the perpetrator and circumstances of the shooting are non-testimonial evidence, rendering them admissible in court. The case involved statements made to police by Anthony Covington identifying Richard Bryant as his assailant and stating the location of the shooting as he lay dying in a gas station parking lot. The trial court admitted Covington's statements into evidence, and Bryant was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder. The Michigan Supreme Court reversed [opinion, PDF], ruling that the testimony was inadmissible hearsay in violation of the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment [text], which gives criminal defendants the right to confront witnesses in a court of law. In an opinion delivered by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the US Supreme Court determined that Covington's statements were admissible and not barred by the Confrontation Clause because they were not testimonial statements, but were statements given "to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency" and were not investigatory in nature. Citing recent cases including Davis v. Washington [opinion, PDF], Sotomayor wrote that "not all those questioned by the police are witnesses and not all 'interrogations by law enforcement officers' ... are subject to the Confrontation Clause." The court took an objective approach in determining what statements would be admissible.

An objective analysis of the circumstances of an encounter and the statements and actions of the parties to it provides the most accurate assessment of the "primary purpose of the interrogation." The circumstances in which an encounter occurs—e.g., at or near the scene of the crime versus at a police station, during an ongoing emergency or afterwards—are clearly matters of objective fact. The statements and actions of the parties must also be objectively evaluated. That is, the relevant inquiry is not the subjective or actual purpose of the individuals involved in a particular encounter, but rather the purpose that reasonable participants would have had, as ascertained from the individuals' statements and actions and the circumstances in which the encounter occurred.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissent decrying the court's "distorted view," advocating a stricter interpretation of the Confrontation Clause and stating that the opinion leaves relevant jurisprudence "in a shambles." Scalia advocated looking more closely at the victim's purpose in making the statements stating that his "pressing medical needs ... reinforce the testimonial character of his statements." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also filed a dissent.

In 2009, the court ruled on another Confrontation Clause issue in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts [JURIST report], where it held that a forensic analyst's laboratory report is testimonial evidence under the Confrontation Clause, giving criminal defendants a right to cross-examine the analysts. One week after the Melendez-Diaz ruling, the court granted certiorari in Briscoe v. Virginia [JURIST report], to consider whether, if a state allows a prosecutor to introduce a certificate of a forensic laboratory analysis, without presenting the testimony of the analyst who prepared the certificate, the state avoids violating the Confrontation Clause by providing that the accused has a right to call the analyst as his own witness. The court issued a decision [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] in January 2010 stating that the admission of the report without testimony was unconstitutional.

 

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