Sunday, October 03, 2010

Bryant argument on Tuesday

Michigan v. Bryant will be argued in the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. I will be second chair to Peter Van Hoek, lead counsel for respondent Bryant. Here are a few thoughts in advance of the argument. These are my own views entirely, and none should be attributed to Bryant or to Peter.

First, a quick review of the facts. Responding to a 911 call, police arrived at a gas station here they found Anthony Covington lying on the ground, bleeding and in pain. In response to their inquiries as to what happened, he told him that he had been shot about half an hour before at the house of “Rick” – arguably a reference to Bryant – six blocks and had driven himself to the spot where the police found him. Covington died later that day. His statement to the police was a crucial piece of evidence in convicting Bryant of murder.

The question here is whether the statement was testimonial for purposes of the Confrontation Clause. I believe that on careful analysis the answer is clearly in the affirmative.

The basic question, in my view, is whether a reasonable person in Covington’s position would realize that his statement was likely to be used in investigating or prosecuting a crime. And I think there can be no doubt that the answer is yes: Covington was giving information about a gunshot assault on him. The case is not like Davis v. Washington, for at least two basic reasons. In Davis, the assault was in progress or just concluded at the time of the statement; here it was a closed incident in the past. And in Davis, the victim was unprotected and presumably seeking protection from the assailant; here, by contrast, Covington was in no need of protection, because the police were already around him.

In part for this reason, the fact that Bryant was at large does not alter this analysis. A rule that a statement is not testimonial if the accused is not already in custody would lack logical support and it would create a badly distorted incentive for the police – to delay taking a suspect, even a dangerous one, into custody while they are gathering evidence.

Nor does the fact that Covington was in dire medical condition alter the analysis. If his statements were ones that could aid in treating his medical condition, then the case would look different, but this was a simple statement describing the crime. There is no remaining contention in the case that the statement was a dying declaration – and even if it were, that would be a separate question from whether the statement was testimonial. If the doctrine governing forfeiture that I regard as ideal were in place, a court might conclude as a preliminary matter that Bryant forfeited the confrontation right by killing Covington. But that possibility – which is also a separate question from the one of whether the statement is testimonial – has been foreclosed by the Court’s decision in Giles v. California, because there is no evidence suggesting that Bryant killed Covington for the purpose of rendering him unavailable as a witness.

It should be borne in mind in this context that nothing in the state’s argument depends on the fact that Covington in fact died before trial. In the state’s view, if he had made a full recovery – or if, though he needed prompt medical attention his life was never in serious danger – and he or the state simply decided that he would not testify at trial, the case would look the same, and because the statement would be characterized as non-testimonial, nothing in the Confrontation Clause would preclude admitting the statement. Indeed, when stripped of the fact that the victim died before trial, this case looks very much like Hammon v. Indiana -- a statement describing an alleged crime made some time after the incident, by a person who was allegedly a victim injured during the crime, made at the scene to police who arrived in response to a 911 call and were able to protect the speaker at the time of the statement. If such a statement is admissible, then I believe we have defeated the purpose of the Confrontation Clause: We will have in effect created a system in which a person who observes a crime may create narrative evidence that will be used at trial to convict a person with no need ever to take an oath or face the accused or cross-examination -- all the person need do is make a statement to the police describing the incident shortly after it occurs.

As in Hammon, the statement be regarded as non-testimonial on the ground that it was not sufficiently formal. I’ve addressed this point enough times in enough places I’ll just make two quick points. First, formality as an independent requirement for characterizing a statement as testimonial makes no sense, because the very point of the confrontation right is to ensure that testimony is given under proper conditions, including the required formalities. If a statement was made in the reasonable anticipation that it would be used for prosecution, the absence of formalities does not mean that the statement is not testimonial; it just means that the statement was not given under acceptable conditions for testimony.

Finally, I want to point out that virtually all the arguments made on the state’s side proceed from the premise, usually made only implicitly, that the question whether a statement is deemed testimonial should be determined form the perspective of the questioner (assuming there is one). Again, this is a point that I have addressed many times (including in my amicus brief in this case). I think that perspective makes no sense at all, and Davis does not stand for it. This case could make a solid contribution to the development of the doctrine of the Confrontation Clause if it establishes that the proper way of determining whether a statement is testimonial is to look at the situation from the point of view of a reasonable person in the position of the declarant.


Anonymous said...

Did anyone else notice the cert petitions for Pendergrass and Bullcoming are identical in large part?
Was there some sort of collaboration to get these cases heard?

Richard D. Friedman said...

I'll respond to this question under the post on the cert grant in the case.