Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Confrontation Clause

The 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that criminal defendants will have the opportunity to confront those who bear witness against them. This guarantee is a product of the natural truth that cross-examination is the greatest method ever devised for extrapolating the truth from witnesses.

There are instances when individuals have provided evidence against a criminal defendant, but then are unable to testify at trial. When such evidence is introduced at trial, it is known as hearsay. Hearsay is generally inadmissible. However, the legal system recognizes several exceptions to this prohibition and permits the introduction of hearsay when certain circumstances exist. The introduction of such hearsay denies the defendant the opportunity to confront the person who made the statements-- an affront to the 6th Amendment. To justify this variance from the Constitution, the Law presumes some forms of hearsay are inherently truthful.

The Texas Law today travels to the Supreme Court of the United States to investigate the landmark decision of Crawford v. Washington. This decision dealt with the admission of hearsay and has profoundly changed the way in which criminal trials are conducted.

Michael Crawford was convicted of attempted murder. At his trial, the prosecution used statements made by his wife to police. Mr. Crawford’s wife did not testify at trial and thus he was unable to cross-examine her about these statements. Mr. Crawford appealed, claiming that the introduction of his wife’s statements violated his 6th Amendment rights. The Washington Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the statement “bore particularized guarantees of trustworthiness.” In making this determination, the Court used what is known as the Roberts Rule. The Roberts Rule says that an unavailable witness’s out-of-court statement is admissible so long as it has sufficient indicia of reliability: it either falls within a firmly rooted hearsay exception or bears sufficient guarantees of trustworthiness.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision, and in so doing created new rules of law. First, all “testimonial” statements must be subjected to cross-examination in order to be admissible. When a statement is given under circumstances in which it is reasonable to presume that the statement will be used in a prosecution against a defendant, such statements are “testimonial.” It is axiomatic that in-court testimony and most sworn statements are testimonial. This decision added statements taken by police officers in the course of their investigation to the definition of testimonial statements.

This changed the law in two momentous ways: first, the exceptions to the hearsay rule will no longer be used to determine the admissibility of testimonial hearsay statements. Hence, these standards are reserved only for the determination of whether non-testimonial hearsay statements are to be admitted into evidence. Second, the decision mandates that testimonial hearsay statements made by a witness who will not testify at trial are admissible only if the defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine the witness about the statement. The court replaced the discretion of judges in determining what the Court called “amorphous descriptions of reliability” with the procedural safeguard of confrontation as the ultimate determinant of truthfulness.

This decision overturned Mr. Crawford’s conviction because Mrs. Crawford’s testimonial statement to police was not subject to cross-examination.

Crawford v. Washington
Supreme Court of the United States

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