Monday, October 15, 2012

Three decisions from the California Supreme Court on forensic reports

The California Supreme Court issued three decisions today on the Confrontation Clause and forensic reports.  Two of them divided the court and show how bad things can get in light of the confusion sown by the US Supreme Court's decision in Williams v. Illinois

The lead case, People v. Lopez, involves a lab report of blood alcohol content.   Seems familiar, doesn't it?  But a majority of the court says that the analyst doesn't have to show up because this report was not sufficiently formal, given where the analyst's signature was on the report.  Maybe a subsequent reading will make this appear less bizarre than it appears to me at the moment, but two quick reactions:  (1) The majority engages in a fine-tuned analysis of the placement of signatures and notations that I think utterly loses sight of the fundamental right at stake of an accused to be confronted with those who provide evidence against him.  (2) The decision, if it stands, provides a recipe for avoiding the confrontation right with respect to forensic reports, something that many labs and prosecutors have been eager to accomplish (one of the concurring opinions is pretty explicit on this).  This recipe will denigrate the quality of evidence presented.

The second case, People v. Dungo, involved an autopsy report in a murder case.  The majority decision says this was not testimonial because it was not made with the primary purpose of creating evidence for trial.  My reaction to this is on the order of "Give me a break."  I understand that there are all sorts of reasons why a medical examiner might do an autopsy.  But by the time the examiner is ready to write a report saying that death was by strangulation, he knows exactly what he is doing -- creating prosecution evidence in a murder case.  I am not a fan of the "primary purpose" test, but if this autopsy report doesn't meet it then the test has become farcial.

The third case, People v. Rutterschmidt, was decided on harmless error grounds, without dissent.  But it's worth mentioning, because it's not every day that a pair of elderly ladies is charged with having taken out multiple insurance policies on the lives of two men, in incidents six years apart, and then murdered them by running over them while they were in compromised condition.