Confrontation in a Scientific Age

Fingerprints, DNA, CSI.  These terms are ubiquitous after the turn of the century and they are undeniable tools that the State and defendants alike can use to argue in criminal cases.  Behind the data lies a methodology and behind the numbers hides a face.  A decidedly modern question burns before the Supreme Court in the case of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, No. 07-591.  Does a defendant have the right to confront an actual witness when presented with forensic evidence in a criminal trial?

The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution states that the accused has the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”  U.S. Const. Amend. VI.  The “confrontation clause” allows for a defendant to cross-examine witnesses to affirm or deny the validity of their testimony to the jury.  Massachusetts allows a certificate of analysis to stand in for testimony for the validity of the forensic results.  The Supreme Court will decide whether forensic evidence falls within the Sixth Amendment’s requirement of confrontation.

The underlying theory of the confrontation clause is that a defendant must be able to question the evidence presented to the jury to assess guilt or innocence.  A large component of the evidence presented in criminal trials is forensic evidence.  Defendants can use forensic evidence to obtain their freedom.  But the price of progress becomes obvious when society relies on this science without question.  Scientific methods can be limited, unreliable, or inexactChain of custody records can further muddle the validity of forensic results.  The Los Angeles Times has reported about conditions in the LAPD fingerprint lab that raise chain of custody issue as well as questions of sufficient funding and training for technicians.  All of these reasons together make a compelling argument that forensic evidence should not be exempt from the confrontation clause.

If the Supreme Court decides that forensic evidence can be questioned through testimony via the confrontation clause, the question turns to what confrontation will be sufficient?  The corroboration of a manager or department head?  Professor Richard Friedman makes a compelling argument why a witness must be the person to testify to the results:

“I didn’t see the stuff being handled, I didn’t see the test being performed, and I didn’t see the results of the test. But I’ll tell you what my colleague wrote on these points.”

The professor argues that testimony doesn’t have to be from the person performing the test, simply from someone with first-hand knowledge of the performance of the test.

Forensic evidence breaks barriers in criminal prosecution and defense.  However, it has substantial limitations.  Justice Breyer references a supporting brief in the Melendez-Diaz case that “is filled with horror stories of how police labs or other labs have really been way off base and moreover really wrong.”  If confronted, I would hope that the Supreme Court rule that forensic evidence falls within the Sixth Amendment’s confrontational requirement.

Photo courtest of Flickr user epadilla.

Published in: on November 19, 2008 at 12:14 am Comments Off on Confrontation in a Scientific Age

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