Jsutice Scalia’s opinion, which for the most speaks for a majority of the Court, refers repeatedly to the defendant’s “intent.” As Justice Breyer emphasizes, there is a soft meaning of the term intent – one is deemed to intend the expected consequences of his conduct. If that is what Justice Scalia meant, then there might not be much of a dispute at all, because one expected consequence of Giles’ fatal assault would be that Avie would not be able to testify. Even on this assumption, though, there may be some ambiguity. In arguing that Davis v. Washington is consistent with what I believe to be the proper approach to determining what is testimonial – one based on the reasonable expectation of the declarant – I have noted the difference between “armchair” and “heat of the moment” expectation. In each, we consider the declarant dealing with the same information, but we assume different contexts; I think Davis is consistent with the view that the expectation of a reasonable declarant should be judged as of the moment when she actually spoke, not as if she were considering the situation later from the comfort of an armchair. The same dichotomy might apply to a reasonable-expectation test of forfeiture, though I think that if it did there would be a stronger argument for applying the armchair test – the accused ought to bear the burden of difficulties that would be obvious to him if he carefully considered the likely consequences of his wrongful conduct. If one applied the armchair view of a reasonable-expectation test, that would essentially cause forfeiture doctrine to come out where the state (and I) thought it should.
But, despite his use of “intent,” Justice Scalia does not appear to be thinking of any reasonable-expectation test. He appears rather clearly to mean that forfeiture applies only to conduct that was motivated (at least in part, and how much is another question) by the desire to render the witness unavailable. Thus, for example, in Part II.A of his opinion, emphasizing a limited meaning of the term “procurement,” he writes, “The terms used to define the scope of the forfeiture rule suggest that the exception applied only when the defendant engaged in conduct designed to prevent the witness from testifying.” Slip op. at 5. On pp. 7 and 14 of the opinion, similarly, in speaking historically he uses “designed” language, and on p. 6 he speaks of the historical materials indicating “a purpose-based definition.” And on p. 13, referring to Fed. R. Evid. 804(b)(6), he endorses Mueller and Kirkpatrick’s comment that courts insist that “the defendant [have] in mind the particular purpose of making the witness unavailable.”
So we seem to have a purpose-based test. But there are a couple of sources of ambiguity – one passage in Justice Scalia’s opinion and one in Justice Souter’s concurrence. Justice Scalia writes:
Acts of domestic violence often are intended to dissuade a victim from resorting to outside help, and include conduct designed to prevent testimony to police officers or cooperation in criminal prosecutions. Where such an abusive relationship culminates in murder, the evidence may support a finding that the crime expressed the intent to isolate the victim and to stop her from reporting abuse to the authorities or cooperating with a criminal prosecution – rendering her prior statements admissible under the forfeiture doctrine. Earlier abuse, or threats of abuse, intended to dissuade the victim from resorting to outside help would be highly relevant to this inquiry, as would evidence of ongoing criminal proceedings at which the victim would have been expected to testify.Slip op. at 23. Clearly Justice Scalia means to cover the situation in which H, knowing that W will likely testify against him on a charge arising out of a prior incident, murders W so that W will not be able to testify. That is close to a core case of forfeiture, falling within the narrowest plausible definition, but with one twist. The twist is that in the core case the witness's testimonial statement was made in connection with the present case, and the accused murders the witness to prevent testimony in that present case. In the case envisioned by Justice Scalia. the testimonial statement was made with reference to a crime other than the murder charged in the indictment, and the defendant committed the murder to prevent the victim from testifying in that prior case. In other words, the court is willing to allow forfeiture of the confrontation right within a given case if the accused's purpose was to prevent testimony, even if the accused anticipated that testimony being used in another case; if the accused's purpose was only to end a life that he had come to regard as an annoyance, that will not cause forfeiture.
Justice Scalia also means to include abusive conduct “designed” to prevent W from making testimonial statements to authorities – though how this design would be proved in the absence of explicit threats is unclear. Is it enough to present general evidence of the patterns and psychology of abusers, supporting the proposition that in beating W, H was not merely expressing his anger and desire to control her, but also attempting to intimidate her from seeking outside help, including help from the authorities? That seems to be quite an inferential leap.
And, what does Justice Scalia mean by saying that murder may “express the intent to isolate the victim” and prevent her from testifying? Murder is not generally an expressive act, so the choice of verb seems odd. Does he mean to cover more than the easy case (in terms of theory even if not of proof) in which the murder was the means by which H effectuated the desire to prevent W from testifying? Does he mean that the murder might reveal that the intent of the prior abuse was to intimidate the witness from testifying – and if so, what does that matter?
Justice Breyer says hopefully that in this passage the majority creates "a kind of presumption that will transform purpose into knowledge-based intent – at least where domestic violence is at issue." Slip op. at 25. Justice Scalia denies that the test he enunciates is one requiring nothing more than "knowledge-based intent," and he is right. But Justice Breyer seems to be making a prediction, and perhaps he is right as well. For example, in a case like Giles itself, perhaps the state will be able to persuade the courts that Giles knew that Avie had made the prior statement to police, so that it should be inferred that killing Avie was designed, at least in part, to prevent her from testifying at a trial.
The interpretive intrigue is greatly compounded by the fact that, even though they joined the key parts of the Scalia opinion, Justice Souter, with Justice Ginsburg concurring, articulates a different standard, with which the three dissenters contingently agree – the contingency being the actual meaning of the standard. Justice Souter says that "the element of intention would normally be satisfied by the intent inferred on the part of the domestic abuser in the classic abusive relationship, which is meant to isolate the victim from outside help, including the aid of law enforcement and the judicial process." Slip op. at 2-3. Justice Breyer believes this language "in effect presumes 'purpose' based on no more than a history of domestic violence," and on that understanding agrees with it, or is at least satisfied that it gets to the right result. So it could be that we have five justices agreeing on the proposition that if a domestic abuse complainant is intimidated from testifying, and the prosecutor can show that she and the accused were in a "classic abusive relationship," that is sufficient for forfeiture. Well, that isn't pretty – for reasons stated in the second installment of these reflections, I worry about the theoretical problems with this approach – but it will get a lot of the job done. As Justice Breyer indicates, it seems to wash purpose largely out of the picture; it certainly does not demand that purpose to render the complainant unavailable be the accused's dominant purpose in engaging in abuse.
Justice Souter, again with the qualified endorsement of the dissenters, also includes this potentially significant statement as part of the passage quoted above:
If the evidence for admissibility shows a continuing relationship of this sort, it would make no sense to suggest that the oppressing defendant miraculously abandoned the dynamics of abuse the instant before he killed his victim, say in a fit of anger.Slip op. at 3. True enough. But in the murder case, the instant before the fatal blow (or perhaps even after it) the complainant was presumably willing to testify, notwithstanding a history of abuse; the last piece of information we generally have is that she did make a testimonial statement (the one at issue) to the authorities. (Contrast the intimidation case, in which the last thing we know is that the complainant is not willing to testify.) So it was the single act of fatal violence that prevented her from testifying at trial, not a history of isolation-causing abuse. Perhaps Justice Souter's logic is something like, "If he engaged previously in the type of abuse that tends to cause isolation, then murder should be considered also as motivated at least in part by a desire to prevent the victim from getting help from authorities." I assume many courts will take advantage of this language to admit statements in Giles-like situations. The logic seems shaky to me, but the results will often be good ones – though I remain concerned about the absence of a mitigation doctrine.