Assumptions and Presumptions

As most students at Eckstein are frantically and diligently studying to ensure we put forth our best efforts during this finals period, I can’t help but think about the certain “presumptions” built into our institution of law. Numerous assumptions and presumptions are used in many different areas of law, but they seem to be accentuated when looking at the Federal Rules of Evidence.

Let’s look at Federal Rule 801 2(b), for instance. Is it really true that a failure to respond makes for an adopted admission? Those who have had, or have, a significant other: have you ever been silent to an assertion made by your significant other? I’m assuming that, like me, you remained silent not because you wanted to tacitly give your approval of the assertion, but rather because you wanted to save the feelings of your significant other, or eliminate a needless argument. I am aware that most things that end up in court may not be so trivial, but nevertheless this example popped into my head rather quickly without much thought. I am sure that the same could be said for many others, and it is the basis of the presumption in general I find unreliable.

Let’s turn to another presumption by looking at Federal Rule 804(b)(2), the “Dying Declaration.”  

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A Visit From the Ghost of Jury Service Past

What do you remember about November 29, 1995? That was the day when one of the jurors in Jesse Webster’s drug trafficking trial was out sick. The next day, with all twelve jurors again present, Webster was convicted. Many years later, Webster claimed in a petition for post-conviction relief that the eleven jurors who showed up on November 29 improperly proceeded with deliberations that day at the direction of a rogue bailiff.

In response to the petition, an investigator tracked down the jurors to ask them what they recalled about November 29, 1995. The interviews took place between 2001 and 2006. (Evidently, the investigation was not exactly a high priority.) The results, as the Seventh Circuit put it with considerable understatement in an opinion last week, were a “mixed bag”:

The first question was: “The court records show that on one day one of the jurors did not appear. Do you recall any such time when that might have occurred?” Seven jurors said they did not recall a juror being absent; four jurors said they did. Of the four who did remember a juror’s absence, three recalled that an alternate juror replaced the absent juror, a claim wholly unsubstantiated by court records. One of the four thought the juror was absent on the day before Thanksgiving; another claimed the juror was absent on the first two days of deliberations. Two correctly recalled that the absent juror was male; one said the absent juror was female. The second question was: “Do you recall being sent home early because of this juror’s absence?” The jurors answered either “no” or that they did not recall.

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Bullcoming Arrives, But Where’s the Path?

The Supreme Court continues to refurnish the modern courtroom with eighteenth-century antiques. Without the slightest glint of irony, or even humor, the Court assessed the admissibility of twenty-first century scientific evidence using legal doctrine crafted on parchment with quill pens in an age when mirrors were placed to direct sunlight into the face of the accused at trial. (Why the mirrors at a time when the accused could not testify in his defense anyway? That’s another story.)    

In its June 23, 2011 decision in Bullcoming v. New Mexico the Supreme Court once again addressed the admissibility against the accused of lab reports prepared by analysts who do not testify at trial. The report was offered through a “surrogate witness.” Bullcoming was charged with drunken driving. A blood test pegged his BAC at 0.21, “an inordinately high level,” as the Court helpfully observed. At trial, however, the State did not call as a witness “Caylor,” the lab analyst who measured the BAC. Caylor, it seems, was enjoying an “unpaid leave for a reason not revealed” – always an intriguing “uh oh” when assessing credibility. Instead, the State called another lab “scientist” who had not observed Caylor’s testing of Bullcoming’s sample but who could talk about lab procedures and the reliability of the report in general. The Court tells us that a “startled defense counsel” objected. (N.B. How the Court knew she was “startled” is unclear, but it is abundantly clear that the confrontation right requires only a timely objection by counsel, startled or unstartled.)

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