U.S. SUPREME COURT – CRIME LAB TECHNICIANS MUST APPEAR IN COURT FOR CROSS-EXAMINATION

 

The defense bar today gains the formidable power to require the government to transport the analyst to the courtroom at the time of trial,” Justice Kennedy wrote.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday June 25, 2009 change some 90 years of precedent and ruled that Crime Lab Technicians must be available in the courtroom for cross-examination.   This may affect Kentucky rulings regarding BA technicians who have been allowed to file written reports.

 

Crime laboratory reports may not be used against criminal defendants at trial unless the analysts responsible for creating them give testimony and subject themselves to cross-examination, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a 5-to-4 decision.

 

 The ruling was an extension of a 2004 decision that breathed new life into the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause, which gives a criminal defendant the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

 

Four dissenting justices said that scientific evidence should be treated differently than, say, statements from witnesses to a crime. They warned that the decision would subject the nation’s criminal justice system to “a crushing burden” and that it means “guilty defendants will go free, on the most technical grounds.”

 

The two sides differed sharply about the practical consequences of requiring testimony from crime laboratory analysts. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the four dissenters, said Philadelphia’s 18 drug analysts will now each be required to testify in more than 69 trials next year, and Cleveland’s six drug analysts in 117 trials each.

Noting that 500 employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation laboratory in Quantico, Va., conduct more than a million scientific tests each year, Justice Kennedy wrote, “The court’s decision means that before any of those million tests reaches a jury, at least one of the laboratory’s analysts must board a plane, find his or her way to an unfamiliar courthouse and sit there waiting to read aloud notes made months ago.”

 

Justice Antonin Scalia, said, “the court is not entitled to ignore even an unwise constitutional command for reasons of convenience.

 

“The confrontation clause may make the prosecution of criminals more burdensome, but that is equally true of the right to trial by jury and the privilege against self-incrimination,” Justice Scalia wrote.

 

“The sky will not fall after today’s decision,” he added.

 

But that is not how prosecutors saw it. “It’s a train wreck,” Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said of the decision.

“To now require that criminalists in offices and labs that are already burdened and in states where budgets are already being cut back,” Mr. Burns said, “to travel to courtrooms and wait to say that cocaine is cocaine — we’re still kind of reeling from this decision.”

 

The decision came in the wake of a wave of scandals at crime laboratories that included hundreds of tainted cases in Michigan, Texas and West Virginia. William C. Thompson, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, said those scandals proved that live testimony from analysts was needed to explore potential shortcomings in laboratory reports.

 

“The person can be interrogated about the process, about the meaning of the document,” Professor Thompson said. “The lab report itself cannot be interrogated to establish the strengths and limitations of the analysis.”

 

In February, the National Academy of Sciences issued a sweeping critique of the nation’s crime labs. It concluded, for instance, that forensic scientists for law enforcement agencies “sometimes face pressure to sacrifice appropriate methodology for the sake of expediency.”

 

Cross-examination of witnesses, Justice Scalia wrote, “is designed to weed out not only the fraudulent analyst, but the incompetent one as well.” He added that the Constitution would require allowing defendants to confront witnesses even if “all analysts always possessed the scientific acumen of Mme. Curie and the veracity of Mother Teresa.”

The case arose from the conviction of Luis E. Melendez-Diaz on cocaine trafficking charges in Massachusetts. Part of the evidence against him was a laboratory report stating that bags of white powder said to have belonged to him contained cocaine. Prosecutors submitted the report with only an analyst’s certificate.

 

The decision, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, No. 07-591.

 

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Justice Kennedy said the majority had upended 90 years of settled law from six federal appeals courts and courts in 35 states.

 

“The court’s holding,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “is a windfall to defendants, one that is unjustified by a demonstrated deficiency in trials, any well-understood historical requirement, or any established constitutional precedent.”

 

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