Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sixth Amendment Requires Cross-Examination of Forensic Lab Witness

The United States Supreme Court announced a decision today in MELENDEZ-DIAZ v. MASSACHUSETTS on the Sixth Amendment Right to cross-examine witnesses. The case involves a drug case brought by the State of Massachusetts in which the State introduced a lab certificate stating that the material seized by the police was in fact cocaine as well as the quality and quantity seized. Melendez-Diaz argued that the introduction of the lab certificate violated the Sixth Amendment and Crawford v. Washington because Melendez-Diaz has a right to cross-examine the lab witness as to process and findings.

The Supreme Court ruled that in fact the lab certificate, even though notarized, was testimonial as it was prepared in anticipation of litigation and that Melendez-Diaz has a right to cross-examine the lab witness. The Court further stated:

Petitioner's power to subpoena the analysts is no substitute for the right of confrontation. Finally, the requirements of the Confrontation Clause may not be relaxed because they make the prosecution's task burdensome. In any event, the practice in many States already accords with today's decision, and the serious disruption predicted by respondent and the dissent has not materialized.

The opinion also quotes from the recent National Academy of Sciences report regarding the not always reliable scientific testing that results from forensic labs:

Nor is it evident that what respondent calls "neutral scientific testing" is as neutral or as reliable as respondent suggests. Forensic evidence is not uniquely immune from the risk of manipulation. According to a recent study conducted under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, "[t]he majority of [laboratories producing forensic evidence] are administered by law enforcement agencies, such as police departments, where the laboratory administrator reports to the head of the agency." National Research Council of the National Academies, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward 6-1 (Prepublication Copy Feb. 2009) (hereinafter National Academy Report). And "[b]ecause forensic scientists often are driven in their work by a need to answer a particular question related to the issues of a particular case, they sometimes face pressure to sacrifice appropriate methodology for the sake of expediency." Id., at S-17. A forensic analyst responding to a request from a law enforcement official may feel pressure--or have an incentive--to alter the evidence in a manner favorable to the prosecution.

Remember to look critically at any evidence (business records, certificates, or any written document) that the Government wants to introduce in lieu of live testimony especially if prepared after the incident. Also, challenges to forensic evidence is more viable than ever given the mention in the Supreme Court opinion and based upon the wealth of information available from the National Academy of Sciences report.
Congratulations to Jeffrey Fisher of the Stanford Law Clinic for this important decision reaffirming the importance of cross-examination!

No comments: