Tuesday, June 23, 2020

A significant decision on remote testimony

Yesterday, the Michigan Supreme Court issued its decision in People v. Jemison, a case that I have mentioned in a prior post and in which I appeared as amicus.  The opinion, by Chief Justice McCormack (a former colleague and co-author of mine) is excellent – and it was unanimous, with one justice not participating.

Briefly, Jemison was convicted of rape.  One of the witnesses against him was a DNA analyst, who was in Utah and testified, over objection, via Skype.  The court held that this violated both federal and state protections of the confrontation right.  Two aspects of the decision are particularly notable.  

First, the decision is clear, crisp, and categorical, appropriately so:  There was no doubt that there was testimony involved here – the only difference from in-court testimony was that this was by Skype – and so the confrontation right was invoked.  And an opportunity for face-to-face confrontation is an essential aspect of the confrontation right.  That wasn’t provided, so there was a violation.  Period.  It didn’t matter that the expert was a witness, nor that it would have been expensive to bring him to Michigan to testify.  (Indeed, the court notes the perverse incentive that would be created by allowing the state to choose an out-of-state expert and then plead cost to prevent face-to-face confrontation.)  The court doesn’t discuss the situation in which it might be unfeasible to create confrontation – which I think would only be where both the witness and the accused effectively can’t travel – but by implication that wouldn’t matter either; the prosecution and not the defense bears the risk of this rare occurrence.  And though the court considered the case during the pandemic crisis (it was argued March 5), there is no suggestion in the opinion that the greater appeal of remote testimony in such circumstances would alter the result.  (I previously posted on this issue; the confrontation right can be fully satisfied so long as the accused, counsel, and the witness are in the same room, so social distance can be maintained.)


Second, and also appropriately, the decision limits Maryland v. Craig to its particular setting – a witness who is both a child and an alleged, with a case-specific showing of the necessity of remote testimony – and casts doubt on its continuing validity in light of Crawford.  The court says that “Crawford did not specifically overrule Craig, but it took out its legs.”  That’s certainly accurate: The categorical, procedural approach of Crawford is entirely antithetical to the balancing, reliability-oriented approach that underlay Craig.  Indeed, the court goes further.  After quoting passages from Justice Scalia’s Craig dissent that certainly sound like precursors to his majority opinion in Crawford he said that “the Confrontation Clause does not guarantee reliable evidence” but rather “specific trial procedures that were thought to assure reliable evidence” and that the text “simply does not permit” interest-balancing – the Jemison court says that in Crawford “his dissent from Craig became the Court’s view.”  (In passing, the Court notes that even if Craig were applicable, the result would be the same; there was no case-specific necessity for remote testimony.)

The court remanded for a determination of harmless error.  But on the questions of principle transcending the facts of this case, the opinion was about as clear and as strong as one could hope.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s implausible that at some point the technology and our knowledge of the impact of remote confrontation will get to a point where we can say that remote confrontation is a satisfactory substitute for actual, face-to-face confrontation.  But we’re not there yet.

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