Thursday, June 25, 2009

Confrontation 5, Convenience 4

All the way back in November, I wrote about a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts. Back then, I wrote that I thought the case was a no-brainer. The state of Massachusetts had convicted Mr. Melendez-Diaz of possessing and selling cocaine. At trial, though, the state did not produce any lab analyst to testify that the white, powdered substance found in the defendant's possession was in fact cocaine. Instead, they presented a certified affidavit from the crime lab. Mr. Melendez-Diaz objected, arguing that his right to confrontation was being violated by the state's refusal to call the lab analyst to testify in person about the testing and results.

The argument, which took place in November, left me a bit nervous. The state's argument boiled down to a logistical argument: it would place too great a burden on states if they actually had to produce witnesses at trial. Yes, yes, it certainly would be easier for states if they could just convict defendants based on pieces of paper without having to comply with those pesky constitutionally-protected trial rights. I mean, really, sometimes these uppity criminal defendants act like the Bill of Rights was enacted to protect their rights against having the state run roughshod over them. That was my take on the state's argument and I was distressed that the argument wasn't laughed out of court. I was still confident, though, that the court would ultimately see things my way. The issue was, after all, a no-brainer.

Today, 8 long months argument argument, SCOTUS finally issued a decision. I was partially vindicated as the defendant won. Justice Scalia (who has written some good 6th Amendment opinions) wrote the majority opinion. His holding is pretty simple and straightforward. Any lawyer wanting to cite the case would have no difficulty finding a pinpoint cite. There are also some very nice lines for defenders to quote. He also took some time to acknowledge the report of the National Academy of Sciences that was so critical of the nation's forensic crime labs. I very much appreciated that recognition by the Court that forensic evidence is often subjective and very, very fallible.

But, ultimately, I still find the decision disheartening. 4 Supreme Court Justices would have sided with the state of Massachusetts. 4 Supreme Court Justices would have denied defendant's the right to confront those lab analysts. Because it would be too logistically difficult for states. Because defendants could always subpoena the witnesses themselves if they really wanted to. And because, really, what is there to cross-examine about scientific data? (Read my previous post if you want to know what is so wrong with that last one.)

So it was only by the barest of margins that Melendez-Diaz won the right to confront his accuser, as in the guy who says the stuff he had was cocaine. My no-brainer of a position won by one measly vote. I want to focus on the positive, that the right position did prevail. But I am disturbed more than I can say by the fact that 44% of the Supreme Court evidently has no brain.

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