Friday, July 18, 2008

No confrontation issue if the statement isn’t even offered.

That seems obvious enough, but the point arose in an interesting context in United States v. Tucker (8th Cir. Jul. 17, 2008). Tucker assisted her boyfriend Robson in a get-away from a bank robbery, and the critical issue was whether when she did so she knew that he had robbed the bank. So, as the 8th Circuit indicated, evidence that Tucker knew that Robson had committed other bank robberies was admissible to show her state of mind on this occasion, and it was also admissible to impeach the credibility of her testimony that she didn’t know Robson had robbed the bank. In cross-examining Tucker, the prosecutor asked whether on three specified prior occasions Robson had robbed a bank and either he had told Tucker about it shortly afterwards or she had helped him get away. Tucker denied each. No evidence of the other robberies was admitted.

If the prosecutor had no good-faith basis for asking questions of this sort, they would be highly prejudicial and improper. But if she did, then they were fair game – even if she had no other admissible evidence of the other robberies, she was entitled to hope that Tucker would tell the truth (as the prosecutor believed the truth is or may be, based on the information that gave her the good faith belief), and that would give her the evidence she wanted. And in this case, she did have a good-faith basis – a statement Robson had made to the FBI. The statement was clearly testimonial, and couldn’t be admitted against Tucker, given that she had not had a chance to cross-examine him. It wasn’t offered, and the jury never even learned of its existence, though they might well have inferred that the prosecutor was basing her questions on something of the sort. But the statement could, without violating the Confrontation Clause, form the good-faith basis for the prosecutor to ask her questions, and that is what the 8th Circuit properly held.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Reflections on Giles, Part 4: The Alito and Thomas opinions

Justice Thomas wrote a brief concurrence in Giles expressing the view that the statement at issue – made by the victim to a responding officer after an alleged assault – was not testimonial in nature. He regarded it as indistinguishable from the statement made to a responding officer in Hammon v. Indiana. I believe he is right that they are materially indistinguishable; of course, I think that the statement in Hammon was clearly testimonial. But given that he dissented from the decision in Hammon, Justice Thomas’s declaration in Giles is hardly surprising.

More intriguing is the separate concurrence by Justice Alito. He says that, “like Justice Thomas,” he is “not convinced” that the statement is testimonial. (Well, if he were entirely like Justice Thomas in this respect, he would be convinced that it was not testimonial.) He expresses sympathy with the dissent’s “displeasure” with the result in this case, but “suggest[]s that the real problem concerns the scope of the confrontation right”; he says it is “not at all clear” that Ms. Avie’s statement is the equivalent of a statement by a witness. Although he is less than definite, Justice Alito sure sounds as if he does not believe this statement is testimonial. But what is notable here is that Justice Alito, like all the justices except for Justice Thomas, joined the majority in Hammon. I suspected from the start that the decision in Davis v. Washington (which included Hammon) was a compromise, from Chief Justice Roberts’s first term, when the Court seemed to be trying hard to achieve consensus (and when Justice Alito was very junior). Justice Alito’s opinion in Giles lends weight to that supposition; it seems likely that he did not like the result in Hammon but went along because other justices who might have been disposed to treat the 911 call in Davis as testimonial were willing to give up that result as part of the overall resolution.

My colleague Chris Whitman, a far more experienced and knowledgeable observer of the Court than I, has raised another issue. She asks whether, given their views, Justices Thomas and Alito should have voted to affirm. I have asked her to write up her thoughts, and she has graciously agreed. Here they are:
Why are Justices Alito and Thomas concurring rather than dissenting? They see no constitutional infirmity in the decision below:

If the statements admitted are not testimonial, as they believe, there is no reason not to affirm the decision.

Alito and Thomas say that the question of whether the statements were testimonial was not the subject of the cert grant. Yet Justices Brennan and Marshall in capital cases repeatedly voted on the basis of their general death penalty views even where cert was granted on a more narrow issue, and Souter (with others) does the same thing in Eleventh Amendment cases. Perhaps the answer is that Alito and Thomas have decided to accept the majority approach to whether a statement is testimonial as a matter of stare decisis, but their opinions in Giles address the issue and certainly sound as if they are not conceding the point.

Under the circumstances of Giles, the result is not so troubling. Here, a criminal
defendant gets a remand even though a majority of the Justices see no constitutional flaw in his conviction. But could there be a case in which the facts are reversed? What if five Justices see a flaw in the trial below, but two of them vote to affirm the conviction on the grounds that the issue critical to them was not the subject of the cert grant? Would we leave a prisoner in jail although five Justices have expressed the view in his case that there was constitutional error below?
I’m not sure she’s right, but I would be glad to know of any readers’ thoughts – in comments either posted here or sent by e-mail to

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Reflection on Giles, Part 3: What Does It Mean?

The accused has intentionally engaged in serious wrongful conduct that has in fact caused the victim to be unavailable as a witness at trial. What state of mind on the part of the accused with respect to that unavailability will support a finding of forfeiture under Giles? There is some ambiguity about that.

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.