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.
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Michigan prosecutors appealed to the US Supreme Court, arguing that the statements should be admissible at Bryant’s trial.Skip to next paragraph
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On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed, vacating the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling and remanding the case to the state courts to reinstate the conviction.
Ginsburg and Scalia dissented
Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that when police are responding to an ongoing emergency – rather than investigating a crime and recording potential testimonial statements – any statements made to help address the emergency could be introduced later in a criminal trial even if the person who made the statements was unavailable to present the testimony and undergo cross examination.
“We hold that Covington’s statements were not testimonial and that their admission at Bryant’s trial did not violate the confrontation clause,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.
The majority said the police actions were oriented toward finding the shooter and protecting the public from a gunman. Thus, the court found, the statements made by Covington were not “testimonial,” which would have barred their use at trial under the confrontation clause.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Scalia dissented. They said Covington’s statements to police were related to the investigation of the crime and clearly testimonial, rather tied to any ongoing emergency.
“Today’s opinion distorts our confrontation clause jurisprudence and leaves it in a shambles,” Scalia wrote.
He warned the decision would undercut the Framers’ purpose of the Sixth Amendment protection by allowing judges greater leeway to decide which hearsay statements to allow at trial and which to exclude. “Unfortunately, under this malleable approach the guarantee of confrontation is no guarantee at all,” Scalia said.
Trial of Sir Walter Raleigh
The justice traced the issue back to the infamous trial of Sir Walter Raleigh in the early 1600s where Raleigh was charged based on the written statements of an accuser who refused to appear in court. Despite Raleigh’s protestations, the testimony was allowed and he was convicted.
“It was judges’ open-ended determination of what was reliable that violated the trial rights of Englishmen [like Raleigh] in the political trials of the 16th and 17th centuries,” he said.
The Constitution’s framers wrote the confrontation clause into the Sixth Amendment to ensure such abuses would not be repeated in the US, the justice said.
“Not even the least dangerous branch [the Judiciary] can be trusted to assess the reliability of uncross-examined testimony in politically charged trials or trials implicating threats to national security,” Scalia wrote.
Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the appeal because it arose during her service as US Solicitor General.