Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Confrontation Clause- Texas Style!

On November 25th, The Texas Law investigated the Supreme Court landmark decision, Crawford v. Washington. Today the Texas Law returns to Texas and visits the Court of Appeals, Second District in Fort Worth to see Crawford in action, Texas-style. Later this week, the Texas Law continues with the Confrontation Clause theme and returns to the hallowed halls of the United States Supreme Court to investigate Davis v. Washington. The Texas Law then will investigate a Texas Court’s application of the rule of law set forth therein. But for today, let’s delve back into Crawford and explore how its application intertwines with a well-known hearsay exception.

Luis Carlos Gongora, Jr. was charged with the murder of Christina Sigala. At trial Tomas Mora, a State witness, testified about a conversation he had with the defendant during which Mr. Gongora admitted his involvement in the shooting. The defense objected on hearsay and confrontation grounds. The Court admitted the testimony under the “statement against penal interest” exception o the hearsay rule. Mr. Gongora was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mr. Gongora appealed, claiming that he was denied his 6th Amendment Right to confront the individual whose statements were offered into evidence through Mr. Mora.

Mr. Gongora claimed that, under Crawford, the statements of a non-testifying witness are inadmissible against him unless he had the opportunity to cross-examine the declarant about the statements. The Court stated that the threshold inquiry in Confrontation cases is whether the statement at issue is “testimonial or non-testimonial in nature.” Although Crawford stopped short of defining testimonial, it “recognized that statements made in the following contexts are indisputably testimonial: ex-parte testimony at a preliminary hearing, testimony before a grand jury, testimony at a former trial, and statements derived from police interrogations.”

The Court ruled that Crawford was inapplicable in this case because the statements were non-testimonial in nature. It ruled that the statements “were simply casual remarks spontaneously made by Maldonado while he hung out with Mora” and thus cannot be regarded as testimonial. Conviction affirmed.

The Rule is clear: the Confrontation Clause is not implicated unless the statements at issue are testimonial in nature.

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Power of Impeachment

After a prolonged absence, the Texas Law returns today and ventures into the bewildering realm of criminal evidence. One function of examination of witnesses is to enable attorneys to attack the credibility of witnesses. A particularly effective method of doing so is the practice known as “impeachment.” Today, we visit the city of Tyler to investigate one method: impeachment via a prior inconsistent statement of the witness.

Mr. Jason Miller was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment. He appealed his conviction, claiming that the trial court improperly excluded evidence of the victim’s previous claims of sexual abuse.

While on the stand, the victim testified that she had never before been subjected to sexual abuse. The defense then questioned the victim about statements the victim had previously made to another person concerning past sexual abuse. When a lawyer seeks to introduce evidence which is not presented by the witness while currently testifying, such evidence is called extrinsic evidence. Extrinsic evidence is generally inadmissible. However, extrinsic evidence of prior inconsistent statements may be admissible if two requirements are met: One, the witness that supposedly made the prior inconsistent statement must be told the contents of the prior statement, and when, where and to whom the statement was made. Two, the witness must then be allowed to explain or deny such statement. This two-step process is referred to as laying a proper predicate. If the witness admits to having made the prior inconsistent statement, then the extrinsic evidence of such statement is inadmissible. If, on the other hand, the witness denies having made such statement, then the extrinsic evidence of that statement is admissible.

In this case, the defense asked the victim whether or not she had ever claimed in the past that she was the victim of sexual abuse. She responded that she had not. The defense then sought to impeach the victim by introducing evidence that the victim had in the past admitted being sexually assaulted. However, the defense merely asked the victim whether or not she had told someone she was assaulted. The defense failed to lay a proper predicate. Thus, the court correctly declined to admit the evidence.
Jason Lyle Miller v. The State of Texas
In the Twelfth Court of Appeals District
Tyler, Texas
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