Confrontation Clause Confusion

The Confrontation Clause of the United States Constitution has been the subject of a series of modern cases decided by the United States Supreme Court. Last month, the Court issued its latest interpretation of a defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him. The new case, Williams v. Illinois, leads to Confrontation Clause confusion.

There were three cases that led up to Williams. The Crawford v. Washington case in 2004 concluded that “testimonial” statements are not admissible in a trial unless the defendant was able to cross-examine the person that made the statements. In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts (2009), the Court held that a lab report identifying a substance as a drug is not admissible at trial without live testimony. The 2011 case of Bullcoming v. New Mexico clarified that the analyst who actually performed the test must testify at the trial, unless the analyst is unavailable and was previously cross-examined.

In last month’s case, Williams v. Illinois, DNA evidence was found on the victim and sent to a private laboratory for analysis. DNA was also taken from the defendant and sent to a police laboratory for analysis. At trial, the forensic specialist from the police laboratory testified the DNA profile from the defendant matched the DNA profile produced by the private laboratory (the DNA found on the victim). The analyst who performed the test at the private laboratory did not testify. The trial court admitted this testimony over the objection of the defendant, and the defendant was found guilty. Both the Illinois Court of Appeals and the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, concluding there was no Confrontation Clause violation. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The United States Supreme Court affirmed the conviction but issued multiple opinions. Although five justices voted to affirm the conviction, not all five agreed as to why the testimony did not violate the Confrontation Clause. Five justices, including one that voted to affirm the conviction, disagreed with the reasoning given in the plurality opinion. Given this unusual result, it is difficult to distinguish a rule of law from the case.

The impact of the Williams decision on Ohio O.V.I. cases is unclear. In O.V.I. cases, prosecutors will sometimes introduce evidence regarding blood/breath/urine tests through witnesses that are not the person that performed all parts of the test. D.U.I. defense lawyers will object on Confrontation Clause grounds, and the outcome will be uncertain. As Justice Kagan said in the Williams case, “What comes out of four Justices’ desire to limit Melendez-Diaz and Bullcoming in whatever way possible, combined with one Justice’s one-justice view of those holdings is-to be frank-who knows what. Those decisions apparently no longer mean all that they say. Yet no one can tell in what way or to what extent they are altered because no proposed limitation commands the support of a majority”.