Confrontation Clause

Confrontation Clause Violation When Accuser Does Not Appear at Trial

By | Confrontation Clause

Tarrant County Trial Court Admits Testimony in Violation of the Confrontation Clause

The Second Court of Appeals recently released a memorandum opinion, which reversed a defendant’s conviction due to a confrontation clause violation. The issue was whether the trial court (Criminal District Court Number 1, Tarrant County) erred in allowing an officer to testify about certain statements the alleged victim made regarding a prior assault allegation.

McDowell v. State—2nd Court of Appeals (2018)

The Facts—Defendant Was Convicted for Felony Domestic Violence

On August 21, 2016, officers were alerted to a domestic disturbance in progress. When officers arrived at the scene they made contact with the victim and the victim’s friend who had reported the disturbance. While talking with the two females, officers noticed multiple bruises on the victim and learned that the suspect (i.e. Defendant), who had allegedly assaulted the victim, was still inside the home. Officers subsequently entered the residence and arrested Defendant.

At trial, dash-cam video showing the accusations made by the two females was admitted. In addition, one of the officers testified to additional statements made by the victim suggesting that the defendant had a history of violence. These additional statements, however, were not included in the dash cam video. Defendant objected to these statements under Crawford because the victim did not appear at trial. Nonetheless, the trial court allowed the out-of-court statements to be admitted over objection.

In addition to the officer’s testimony regarding the hearsay statements, the jury heard from two other witnesses about the cycle of domestic violence. The State then referenced this testimony in relation to Defendant’s history of domestic violence during closing arguments. As a result, Defendant was convicted. Defendant later appealed his conviction arguing that the trial court erred when it allowed the officer to testify to the victim’s statements in violation of the confrontation clause of the 6th Amendment.

Court of Appeals Reverses and Remands Case—Holding the Trial Court Erred in Admitting the Officer’s Testimony

Generally, the Confrontation Clause bars admission of testimonial statements of a witness who does not appear at trial. In determining whether certain statements were testimonial in nature, “the Court looks to see whether circumstances were present at the time the statements were made that would indicate the existence of an ongoing emergency.” If such circumstances existed, the statements are admissible.

Here, the victim did not appear at trial. As such, the Court of Appeals attempted to analyze whether the victim’s statements were testimonial in nature by determining whether they were made during the ongoing emergency. However, the Court was unable to do so because there was no evidence from the State regarding when these statements were made. The Court concluded that without knowing the timing at which the statements were made, there was no way to determine the existence of an ongoing emergency. The Court explained that once there is an objection to the admission of evidence on confrontation grounds the burden shifts to the State. Here, the State was silent in regard to the confrontation objection. And, without the State providing more evidence, the Court could not conclude that the statements were nontestimonial. Accordingly, the Court held that the trial court erred in admitting the statements.

The Court then conducted a harm analysis to determine whether the error impacted the jury’s verdict, which would require a reversal. In making its determination, the Court noted that the majority of the officer’s testimony was based on the inadmissible statements. These statements portrayed a history of violence rather than just one instance. Further, the other witnesses’ testimony hinged on these inadmissible statements. Thus, because the inadmissible statements were a crucial part in establishing the elements of the offense, the Court could not say beyond a reasonable doubt that the trial court’s error did not contribute to Defendant’s conviction and, therefore, a reversal was required.

Fort Worth Criminal Defense Child Victim

US Supreme Court Rules Child’s Statements to Teacher Non-Testimonial

By | Confrontation Clause

Statements by Child Victim to Teacher Were Admissible “Non-Testimonial” Under the Supreme Court’s Confrontation Clause Jurisprudence.

Fort Worth Criminal Defense Child VictimThe Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause protects a defendant’s right to confront witnesses against him and raises the issue of how-to-treat admissibility of out-of-court statements.  In a landmark 1980 case, the Supreme Court adopted a standard allowing out-of-court statements to be admitted if they are deemed reliable and trustworthy.

In 2004, the Court adopted what this Court called a “different approach,” adopting the position that testimonial statements–out-of-court statements as a substitute for in-court testimony–are inadmissible unless the witness is unavailable to testify in court and the defense had an earlier opportunity for cross-examination.

In 2006, the Court adopted the “primary purpose” test, under which statements made during the course of police interrogation for the primary purpose of meeting an ongoing emergency are not testimonial and are therefore admissible. Only statements made in the course of an investigation for the primary purpose of proving facts relevant to later prosecution are potentially inadmissible.

In 2011, the Court expanded the primary purpose test by requiring the determination of whether a statement is testimonial to consider all the relevant circumstances. Specifically, the Court said statements made to police officers in an informal setting are less likely to be testimonial than a police station interrogation.

All of the cases up to this point had one fact in common–the statements were made to law enforcement officers. The Court had declined to decide the issue of whether the same rules would apply to statements made to individuals other than police officers.

Breaking Confrontation Clause Caselaw | Fort Worth Criminal Defense Attorneys

In Ohio v. Clark, the Court finally had the opportunity to address the question regarding statements made to individuals other than police officers. In Clark’s child abuse trial, statements made by the three-year-old victim to his teachers that Clark had caused his injuries were admitted into evidence. The three-year-old did not testify because of an Ohio law that generally determined children younger than ten years of age incompetent to testify.

The trial court ruled the child’s statements were not testimonial and allowed them to be admitted. Clark was convicted and sentenced to 28 years imprisonment.

A state appellate court reversed the decision. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Appeals Court, concluding the primary purpose of the teachers’ questioning was gathering evidence, not addressing an ongoing emergency. The court considered the teachers agents of the state under the state’s mandatory reporting law and found the child’s statements functionally equivalent to live in-court testimony that was inadmissible.

The United State Supreme Court disagreed and decided the child’s statements were made in the context of an ongoing emergency regarding suspected child abuse. The teachers needed to know who might have abused the child so they would know whether it was safe to release the child to his guardian and to help prevent future attacks. During the spontaneous and informal questioning, the teachers never told the child his statements might be used to punish Clark. The Court found it unlikely the child intended his statements to be a substitute for trial testimony.

The Court declined to adopt a categorical rule that all statements to persons other than law enforcement officers are testimonial, but considered the identity of the questioners in this case and concluded that statements made to individuals not principally charged with uncovering and prosecuting criminal behavior, such as teachers, are less likely to be testimonial.

The Court rejected the argument that the mandatory reporting law transformed teachers into agents of the state, concluding the teachers would have taken steps to protect the child even in the absence of the law. The Court also rejected Clark’s claim that the child’s statements should have been inadmissible because the jury perceived them to be testimonial, noting that theory would render almost all out-of-court statements offered by the prosecution inadmissible.

The Court concluded that because the child’s statements were not made for the primary purpose of creating an out-of-court substitute for trial testimony, they were not testimonial and were therefore admissible.

Although the ruling in the case was unanimous, in an unlikely pairing, Justices Scalia and Ginsburg argued the 2004 decision regarding testimonial statements was adequate to decide this case. They argued the majority’s characterization of the 2006 and 2011 cases as different approaches or alternative tests was an attempt to return to the 1980 standard of reliability when the only issue is whether the statement is made by a witness and is unconfronted.

Justice Thomas argued the Court should in fact return to the 1980 standard of trustworthiness and reliability and apply the same standard to statements made to private individuals and those made to police officers. Thomas characterized the primary purpose test as an “exercise in fiction” and concluded in this case, the child’s statements did not meet the standards of reliability and trustworthiness to fall under the prohibition of the Confrontation Clause

Fort Worth scientific testimony

The Confrontation Clause and Testimony From a Supervising DNA Analyst

By | Confrontation Clause

Fort Worth scientific testimonyAs Fort Worth criminal defense attorneys, we often encounter confrontation issues during trial. The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment gives a defendant the right to confront witnesses against him. This provision prevents admission of a “testimonial” statement–a formal statement similar to trial testimony–unless the person who made the statement can be cross-examined or is unavailable but was previously cross-examined (in a deposition, for example). In the absence of cross-examination, a criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth would object to admission of the statement as evidence.

In Paredes v. State, the Court of Criminal Appeals considered how the Confrontation Clause applies to DNA testimony based on computer-generated data obtained through batch DNA testing. During a robbery, two victims were shot and killed. Jovany Paredes asked Jessica Perez to wash the shirt he was wearing during the robbery. Instead, Perez gave the shirt to police, who sent it to a lab for DNA testing. DNA from blood on Paredes’s shirt matched one of the victims.

At trial, Robin Freeman, the lab director, explained that DNA testing involves four analysts. The fourth analyst interprets raw data from a computer to determine whether there is a DNA match. In Paredes’s case, Freeman herself compared the DNA profile from the blood stain to Paredes’s DNA profile. Freeman testified that she did not personally observe each of the analysts performing the first three steps but that any problem in the analysis would have been obvious. Freeman testified that the ultimate opinion was hers and that she was testifying regarding her opinion.

Paredes’s defense attorney objected, arguing that he was entitled to cross-examine the other analysts. The State said those analysts just took “physical stuff,” placed it into instruments and applied chemicals. Freeman, the State said, was the one who did the interpretation that was presented to the jury. The judge agreed with the State, and Paredes was convicted of capital murder.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that Freeman’s testimony did not violate the Confrontation Clause. After the Court of Appeals decision, the CCA decided in Burch v. State that admission of a drug test lab report did violate the Confrontation Clause because the testifying witness stated that the report was a “surrogate” for the technician who performed the test. Paredes appealed based on Burch. The CCA vacated the Court of Appeals decision and remanded the case to consider whether Burch affected the decision in Paredes.

The Court of Appeals made the same decision the second time, distinguishing Paredes, where the lab director had knowledge of the tests used and conducted the crucial analysis, from Burch, where the testifying lab supervisor had not observed or performed any part of the drug test or its analysis. Because Paredes’ attorney had the opportunity to cross-examine the person who conducted the actual analysis that linked him to the crime, Paredes’ Confrontation Clause rights had not been violated.

Paredes appealed to the CCA again. The Court reviewed three U.S. Supreme Court cases involving forensic reports. In the first two cases, the Supreme Court had found the forensic reports inadmissible because only a “certificate of analysis” was presented as evidence and a testifying witness had not actually performed the test.

In the third case, a DNA case, an outside forensics specialist testified that the lab-created DNA profile matched the defendant’s DNA profile. The Supreme Court held that this evidence did not violate the Confrontation Clause.

Based on the Supreme Court cases (Melendez-Diaz and Bullcoming) and the decision in Burch, the CCA ruled against Paredes. The CCA relied on the fact that Freeman, the testifying witness, had actually performed the crucial analysis and had testified to her own conclusions. Further, the lab director had testified regarding the quality assurance system at the lab that would alert the director if the test were done improperly. The CCA also distinguished this case because Freeman had relied on raw, computer-generated data in reaching her conclusions, rather than relying on another analyst’s report. Because Paredes was given the opportunity to question Freeman regarding her opinion, the CCA held that his Confrontation Clause rights were not violated.

A Fort Worth criminal defense attorney whose client is facing forensic expert testimony will carefully consider Paredes. Challenges to DNA evidence may be more difficult, particularly if the testifying witness is the individual who actually translated the raw data into a conclusion regarding a DNA match. A criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth will carefully monitor the application of Paredes to cases with similar, yet different, facts.

Another Confrontation Case at the Supremes – Williams v. Illinois

By | Confrontation Clause

This Tuesday (6 Dec 11), the United States Supreme Court heard another Confrontation Clause case (Williams v. Illinois) dealing with forensic testing (ala Melendez-Diaz and Bullcoming).  The question presented was

Whether a state rule of evidence allowing an expert witness to testify about the results of DNA testing performed by non-testifying analysts, where the defendant has no opportunity to confront the actual analysts, violates the Confrontation Clause.

At trial, the state called a DNA expert to testify about how it matched the accused’s DNA profile with DNA evidence recovered from a rape victim, but the state did not call a DNA analyst from the company that conducted the initial testing.  The defendant later claimed that his right to confrontation was violated because he was denied an opportunity to question all of the DNA analysts that tested the evidence.  The Court was hotly divided on the issue, at times debating amongst themselves.

Robert Barnes of the Washington Post covered the case HERE.  I couldn’t attend the hearing, so I’ll rely on his account of the oral argument.

The ABA preview of the case, which briefs and such, is HERE.

Revisiting Michigan v. Bryant

By | Confrontation Clause

Back in February, we alerted you to the Supreme Court decision in Michigan v. Bryant regarding testimonial v. non-testimonial statements.  I wanted to re-post on this case and take a deeper look at what has changed as a result of the Supreme Court’s opinion.

The Bryant court came up with a new test to evaluate what types of statements made to law enforcement are testimonial.  Before Bryant, Crawford basically stated that statements made during interrogations qualified as testimonial.  But, Crawford was just the tip of the iceberg.  After Crawford, the Court in Davis v. Washington specifically addressed statements made to officers to enable them to respond to an ongoing emergency.  The Court held that those statements are non-testimonial.  The problem was that the Court in Crawford and Davis failed to give us a clear test to determine what types of statements would be non-testimonial.

Finally, the Court decided Bryant, giving us a test. Under the Bryant test, courts must consider three factors:

1) The circumstances of the encounter;

2) The questions and statements of the participants; and

3) The primary purpose of the interrogation as viewed by reasonable participants at the time.

The case was consistent with Crawford.  Analyzing the facts in Crawford, we can see that a 911 call reporting an ongoing assault would still be held non-custodial under the Bryant test.  The circumstances of the encounter was that there was an ongoing emergency taking place, the questions and statements of the participants were specifically in relation to the 911 call and the primary purpose of the 911 call was to report an emergency.  The Bryant court ultimately held that if the primary purpose of the statement is not for the purpose of creating a substitute for trial testimony, then the Confrontation Clause does not apply.

For all practical purposes, Crawford seemed to give a blanket exception for all 911 calls as being non-testimonial.  By giving us a test, the Supreme Court left each statement to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  Could a 911 call be considered testimonial?  If evaluated under the Bryant test, and the right circumstances exist, we think it could be.  This argument could have been made even after the Crawford decision came down, but it may be easier to point the court to the Bryant test when arguing that statements made were subject to the confrontation clause – even if there is an emergency situation taking place.

Michigan v. Bryant, 131 S. Ct. 1143 (2011)
Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004)
Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813 (2006)

Confrontation of Witness

Confrontation of an Available Witness That Cannot Remember

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What happens when a witness cannot remember facts to which she previously testified before the grand jury?

Confrontation of WitnessCan the State simply read her grand jury testimony into evidence as past recollection recorded even though the Defendant was not present to cross-examine her during that hearing? Normally, I would say yes, but I’m not talking about a witness that cannot remember one fact or another.  I’m talking about a witness that cannot remember ANYTHING about which she testified before the grand jury.  To me, that changes the game a bit.

The CCA recently considered this issue in Woodall v. State. I say they “considered” it – actually the Court was careful not to provide a definite holding on the matter. Instead, it punted the case on procedural (waiver) grounds. Nonetheless, the CCA did provide some dicta that is a helpful insight into its thinking.

We believe that, under the facts of this case, memory loss did not render [the witness] “absent” for Confrontation Clause purposes…The Supreme Court has generally rejected the notion that a present and testifying witness is nevertheless absent for confrontation purposes if the witness suffer from memory loss.

Curiously, the CCA cites only pre-Crawford cases. For example, citing a 1970 Supreme Court case, the CCA quoted the concurring opinion of Justice Harlan, in which he opined that

a witness’s lack of memory should have no Sixth Amendment Consequence.

However, the legal landscape has drastically changed since the time of Justice Harlan’s opinion. I doubt Scalia would agree with such reasoning today. Then again, as a strict constructionist, maybe he would.  If the witness is available at trial, even if she cannot remember anything, is that enough to satisfy the 6th Amendment? I would argue NO, but perhaps I’m wrong. Either way, we will not find out with the Woodall case, because the CCA passed on the ultimate issue.

Dying Declaration Non-Testimonial Says the Supreme Court

By | Confrontation Clause

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that dying declaration (classified in this case as “excited utterances”) made to police officers and identifying the suspect, were admissible despite the fact that the witness did not later testify at trial.  The Court labeled the man’s statements “non-testimonial” for purposes of the Confrontation Clause (and the Crawford case).  To read more about it, see CNN coverage HERE.

Read the Court’s opinion in Michigan v. Bryant.

Justice Scalia did not mince words in his dissent:

Today’s tale — a story of five officers conducting successive examinations of a dying man with the primary purpose, not of obtaining and preserving his testimony regarding his killer, but of protecting him, them, and others from a murderer somewhere on the loose — is so transparently false that professing to believe it demeans this institution.