Confrontation and Criminal Trials: What’s Actually in Play

The long-awaited Supreme Court decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts finally came down on June 25, 2009.  See my prior post here.  Neither the majority opinion nor the dissent yield many clues about what took so long (this was the last case from the Court’s November sitting), and on the surface at least there is little that is portentous.  Yet the case is ultimately about far more than hearsay evidence in criminal trials.  It reveals significant discord about the nature of the modern adversary trial as well as skepticism over the use of science in the courtroom. 

The case addressed whether the government may introduce a crime laboratory report (hearsay) against a defendant without calling as a witness the analyst who performed the test.  The Court held that such reports are manufactured expressly for use at trial against the defendant; hence, they constitute “testimonial hearsay” that cannot be introduced without the declarant (the lab analyst) on the witness stand, available for cross-examination. 

The dissent bewailed the expense and inconvenience wrought by this requirement, a critique seemingly blunted by the majority’s endorsement of “notice-and-demand” rules.  Such rules allow prosecutors to give pretrial notice of their intent to offer reports in lieu of expert testimony and require the defense to object absent the live, in-court testimony of the analyst.  Some states already have such rules and others, like Wisconsin, will probably soon expand their use.  (I spoke with state officials last week about some alternatives.)   Regardless, competent prosecutors will present such live testimony anyway, and even in the teeth of a defense offer to stipulate, where it is helps the jury decide facts, fills gaps in the story, or provides a “dog-and-pony show” that underscores the strength of the State’s case.  In sum, the Court’s holding hardly handcuffs the government.

And Melendez-Diaz itself may have a short-shelf life.  Only four days after publishing Melendez-Diaz, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in a Virginia case that revisits this very evidentiary scenario.  Since the recently departed David Souter provided the fifth vote for the majority, we will soon learn how justice-soon-to-be Sotomayor, a former prosecutor with a liberal bent, affects the balance.  (After reading last week’s lively exchanges about Sotomayor by my colleagues Ed Fallone and Rick Esenberg in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (June 28), I’ll hedge my bet, as wise Slovak men invariably do.)

Aside from the narrow hearsay issues, Melendez-Diaz speaks to several more fundamentally important concerns.  First, it evinces the Court’s continuing skepticism about expert testimony generally.  In explaining the defendant’s need to cross-examine the government’s analysts, the Court noted the “serious deficiencies” that plague forensic sciences, as tellingly set forth in a winter 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences.  The problem is neither new nor confined to criminal cases.  Concerns in civil litigation about “junk science,” to use the sobriquet, led to the Daubert rule in the mid-1990s, which anointed federal judges as “gatekeepers” charged with ensuring that only “reliable” science and expertise be admitted at trial.  (We all know that history majors are ideally suited for this role.)   If Melendez-Diaz reveals the Court’s unease about how science is often bent, twisted, and distorted in the courtroom, it also signals intolerance for making this even easier through hearsay evidence.

And this leads directly to the second point.  By demanding that the government produce the analysts for trial, Melendez-Diaz faithfully embraces an older ideal of the trial as a literal face-to-face confrontation between the accused and accuser in a public courtroom.  It prefers the spoken word, extemporaneous exchanges through a lively Q&A, and assumes that demeanor yields valuable clues about what is believable and, as important, who is worthy of belief.  Here “character” looms large as divined in one’s appearance and deportment.  Reliability is a function of credibility.  The older-style trial judged people more than it “found” facts. 

In sum, Melendez-Diaz fits into a line of cases that recreates the world of the late eighteenth-century trial, a product of a different society and culture.  The hubris of the modern trial as a procedurally rigid, quasi-scientific search for “the” truth is a later development.  The gulf that separates the majority and dissenting opinion is one that spans the considerable changes that have occurred in American law, culture, and institutions since the early 1790s, and the limits to which that older-style trial can, and perhaps should, be adapted to present circumstances and values.

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