What is the United States Supreme Court Doing to the Confrontation Clause?

A criminal defendant has the Constitutional Right to confront his accusers in open court. This is referred to as the Confrontation Clause in the United States Constitution. The purpose of the clause, for one, is to prevent false accusations by requiring that the complaining witness appear in Court and testify against the accused. It also allows the defense an opportunity to show or demonstrate that the complaining witness is lying (if he is lying), or not credible.

The United States Supreme Court ruled today on Michigan v. Bryant, and may have complicated the Confrontation Clause. In this case a shot and dying man told police at the scene that he was shot by Richard Bryant. The victim died from his wounds before trial. The police testified as to what they were told, namely that the victim identified Richard Bryant as the shooter. Bryant was convicted at the trial, but the Michigan Supreme Court overturned the conviction stating that the judgment ran afoul of the Confrontation Clause. Today, the Supreme Court, in a 6-2 ruling, held that the conviction was valid and hearsay evidence (the testimony of the police) can be used when a victim of violent crime is unable to testify. The admission of the testimony has to do with the purpose of the statement. Justice Sotomayor, writing for the majority, said:

…the state court had made a mistake in considering Mr. Covington’s statements to be “testimonial” and hence subject to the Confrontation Clause. Testimonial statements, she explained, are ones solemnly made to establish facts about past events.

The primary purpose of Mr. Covington’s statement was something else, Justice Sotomayor wrote. It was to aid the police in addressing an “ongoing emergency,” given that the person who shot Mr. Covington had a gun and was on the loose.

The testimony may have been allowed based on the “dying declaration” hearsay exception. A dying declaration will allow testimony that is otherwise hearsay, if:

  1. The declarant is unavailable;
  2. The declarant’s statement is being offered in a criminal prosecution for murder, or in a civil action;
  3. The declarant’s statement was made while under the belief that his death was imminent; and
  4. The declarant’s statement must relate to the cause or circumstances of what he believed to be his impending death.

However, the prosecution never raised this issue, nor did the supreme Court in today’s decision. So now the interplay between a dying declaration and the Confrontation Clause, are completely in turmoil.

Justice Scalia wrote a scathing dissent of the decision, and while I never believed that I would agree with Justice Scalia on anything, I believe he is correct here. There already exists an exception for such evidence to come into evidence. If the testimony is not properly entered, we should not be creating further exceptions and loopholes for the admission of tainted evidence. In the end, a conviction based on no more than the words of a police officer allegedly recanting the words of a dying man, who may or may not have been delirious from pain or loss of blood, is troubling.