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Supreme Court rules dead man's accusations can be used at trial

The Supreme Court rules that statements given to authorities during an emergency may be introduced as evidence in a trial even if the source dies before the trial.

By Staff writer / February 28, 2011



Washington

The US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that statements made to authorities during an ongoing emergency may later be introduced as evidence in a criminal trial – even if the source of the statements dies prior to the trial.

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The 6-to-2 ruling creates a significant exception to the Sixth Amendment’s right of charged criminals to confront their accusers during their trial, countering a recent trend in Supreme Court rulings.

Since 2004, the high court, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, has sought to reinvigorate the so-called confrontation clause. It has done so by eliminating many of the judge-created exemptions that allowed introduction of hearsay statements even though there would be no opportunity for the defendant to challenge their veracity through cross examination.

Monday’s decision in Michigan v. Bryant (09-150) involves a dispute over whether statements made to police by a man with a fatal gunshot wound could be presented as evidence at the trial of the alleged shooter.

In April 2001, Detroit police found Anthony Covington lying near his car in a gas station parking lot. He had been shot. While waiting for emergency medical personnel, police asked him a series of questions. What happened? Who shot you? Where did the shooting occur?

Key information before dying

Covington answered the questions, telling police that “Rick” had shot him. He gave police the address.

Police went to house of Richard Bryant at the provided address. He was not home. They found blood and a bullet on the back porch and noticed a bullet hole in the door. They also found Covington’s wallet and identification outside the house.

Covington died within hours in the hospital of his gunshot wound. Mr. Bryant remained at large for a year before being arrested in California.

At his trial, the responding police officers were permitted to tell the jury what Covington had reportedly told them as he lay in the gas station parking lot. They testified that he provided a name “Rick” and an address of the shooting location.

The jury convicted Bryant of second degree murder.

An appeals court upheld the verdict. But that decision was overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court citing two US Supreme Court decisions that had significantly strengthened the right of defendants to confront witnesses.

The Michigan Supreme Court said that the police accounts of Covington’s statements could not be presented as testimony at Bryant’s trial because Bryant had never been able to cross-examine Covington.

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