Monday, February 28, 2011

Bryant reversed

I have been out of electronic contact most of the day; presumably many readers already know that the Supreme Court reversed the decision in Michigan v. Bryant. A very unfortunate result. The vote was 6-2, per Justice Sotomayor (a surprise to me); the basis of the decision was that the primary purpose of the statements was to resolve an ongoing emergency (also a surprise to me). Justices Scalia and Ginsburg wrote separate dissents; Justice Scalia said that the decision leaves Confrontation Clause doctrine in “a shambles”. I will write more after I have had a chance to read and absorb the opinions.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Rae Carruth Case Six Years Later

Nearly six years ago, I wrote a long post, Forfeiture, the Prosecutorial Duty to Mitigate, and Rae Carruth. Carruth is the former NFL player who has been convicted of conspiring to kill his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams; the prosecution's theory was that he stopped or slowed down his SUV in front of Adams's car while, by prearrangement, someone from another car pulled up alongside Adams and shot her. Adams survived for nearly a month. Immediately after the attack, she made a 911 call, describing the incident in considerable detail, including an assertion that Carruth had made a cell call shortly before leaving his house and that he had blocked her car. Over the next several hours, she made additional statements, including one at the scene and one at the hospital to a responding officer, and hand-wrote notes to a nurse at the hospital, describing the incident and preceding events. Some time after writing those notes – just how long I am not sure – she sank into a coma from which she did not recover.

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a decision affirming the denial of a petition for habeas made by Carruth (whose legal name is Wiggins). Notably, Carruth did not contest before the Sixth Circuit that the 911 call was admissible and the state did not contest that the subsequent statements were inadmissible under the Confrontation Clause; the only issue for the court, so far as the latter statements were concerned, was whether the error in admitting them was harmless, and the court held that it was.

The case therefore becomes something of a measure of the development of Confrontation Clause doctrine. Presumably Carruth assumed that the court would hold that the 911 call did not violate the Confrontation Clause because of the emergency doctrine of Davis v. Alaska, and presumably the state assumed that the court would hold the later statements to be testimonial, under the other part of Davis (the part governing Hammon v. Indiana) and that under Giles v. California it would not prevail on an argument that Carruth forfeited the confrontation right. Accepting these assumptions as accurate for present purposes, I think they show how the doctrine has gone wrong in a couple of respects.

True, Adams called 911 in dire circumstances, and in that sense the call was one for help (which the statements in the pending Bryant case were not, given that the police were already on the scene when the victim made them). But it is clear that much of what she had to say -- most notably, identifying Carruth and telling about his behavior before and after the shooting – had little or nothing to do with getting help and was instead a communication of how the grievous assault had been committed and who had played a central role in it. I believe it should be regarded as testimonial, and to the extent Davis persuades a court otherwise that is unfortunate.

The later statements clearly were testimonial. But were they subject to forfeiture? After Giles, presumably not, because, while there was ample evidence that Carruth conspired to kill Adams, there is no showing that he did so with the design of preventing her from testifying in any proceeding. As I've often said, on this blog and elsewhere, I think Giles was a very unfortunate development. In my view, whether forfeiture should be applied in this case should depend in large part on how long Adams remained able to communicate. I analyze the issue at some length in the prior post, though when I wrote that I did not know that Adams had become comatose some time before her death. Adams had no hesitation making accusatorial statements, and the police, among others, had no hesitation in soliciting them. It is conceivable – I cannot say it is certain – that there was a window during which it would have been practicable and not inhumane to hold a deposition. There are many examples of this being done, even with victims who eventually died, during the founding era; the Forbes case, discussed in the prior post, is one example.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Melendez-Diaz acquitted

As some readers already know, Luis Melendez-Diaz was acquitted yesterday on retrial of the case that made him famous within the circle of people that pay attention to developments related to the Confrontation Clause. Here is a report on the outcome. A chemist from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health did testify live as to the lab reports -- but I don't know whether this was the same chemist who performed the test, or whether his conclusions were challenged by the defense. One of Melendez-Diaz's lawyers said the case was one of "guilt by association," which seems to suggest that the principal defense was that the stuff found in the car did not belong to Melendez-Diaz.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011