Friday, June 26, 2009

SCOTUS: Crime Lab Techs Must Testify

I almost missed this yesterday:

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 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 [for the majority].
Interesting. The dissenters (an unusual combination of Kennedy, Roberts, C.J., Alito and Breyer) argued this would hamstring prosecutors and states already reeling from budget cuts.
“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.”

Mr. Burns said complying with the ruling would be particularly tough in large rural states with a single crime laboratory and in old cases where the analyst has died or moved away.
Of course, the simple solution is to raise monies and fund these labs properly, which is the point entirely. If justice is supposed to be truly blind, and people's liberty is at stake, whining about recessions is irrelevant.
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.

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.”
I wrote about this report and issue previously. The case is Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts (2009).

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