Friday, February 11, 2011

In Case You Didn't Think It Matters

Not Guilty.
We in the criminal defense bar crave those words even, it sometimes seems, more than our clients do.  But if the words are always sweet, sometimes they have special resonance.  Yesterday, for instance, in Suffolk Superior Court in Massachusetts.
The case involved one Luis Melendez-Diaz, and if that name doesn't sound familiar, maybe it will if you skip the "Luis" part and just think Melendez-Diaz.  Or maybe if you think it in italics, you know, like the name of a Supreme Court case.  Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts.
If it still doesn't mean anything to you, that's the case where SCOTUS said that the Confrontation Clause of the 6th Amendment
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him . . . ,
applies even to lab technicians who work for the government.  That seems self-evident, but only if you actually believe that the amendment doesn't include the word "sometimes."  The vote in SCOTUS was, after all 5-4, and the penultimate sentence of the dissent makes clear that the 4 (Kennedy, Roberts, Alito, and Breyer) think that "sometimes" is part of the Amendment.  That sentence reads,
Laboratory analysts who conduct routine scientific tests are not the kind of conventional witnesses to whom the Confrontation Clause refers. 
But I'm getting sidetracked here.  This isn't a post about SCOTUS or even about the 6th Amendment, except incidentally.  This is a post about consequence.
Consider, if you will, Ernesto Miranda.
You know, the guy whose conviction was reversed by SCOTUS because the cops didn't tell him that he had the right to a lawyer and that what he said to them could be used against him. and got sent back for a new trial, this time without his confession.  You know all that, and you know about Miranda warnings.  Maybe you don't know that he was tried again in the Arizona courts, without that confession.  And he was found guilty again.
Consider Larry Youngblood.
He was convicted of kindapping and repeatedly sodomizing a 10-year-old boy. Based on the boy's description and identification, Youngblood was arrested and then convicted by a jury.  The problem, his expert witnesses testified at trial, was that the biological evidence had been improperly stored and therefore it was degraded and unavailable for testing that would prove his innocence. That incompetence on the government's part, he said on appeal, corrupted the adversary system, deprived him of his constitutional rights, and required that he be freed.  Arizona courts agreed and cut him loose, but Arizona asked SCOTUS to intervene, which it did, sending Youngblood back to prison.  The Court (6-3) said that since he couldn't prove that the destroyed evidence would have shown him innocent (after all, it had been destroyed), and since he couldn't show that the cops acted out of malice rather than incompetence in allowing the evidence to be destroyed, he had no real beef with the system.
So Youngblood went back to prison.
And then, in 2000, new, sophisticated techniques made it possible to test that old biological evidence. Youngblood had been telling the truth. He was innocent. More, the testing revealed the actual bad guy, a fellow named Walter Cruise, who was convicted of the crime in 2002.
Consider Clarence Gideon.
Charged in Florida with a felony for breaking and entering a poolroom to commit a theft.  He had no money to hire a lawyer and asked the court to give him one.  The court said no, Gideon went to trial representing himself and was convicted.  His case went up to the Supreme Court on his own, handwritten, petition.  SCOTUS agreed to hear it and unanimously (though with several opinions), reversed.
Back for a new trial, this time Gideon had a lawyer.  And was acquitted.
Which brings us back to Luis Melendez-Diaz.  He just had his new trial.  This time, the state called as a witness the lab technician who tested the stuff that got him convicted before.  Martin Finucane in the Boston Globe reports:
On Wednesday, during Melendez-Diaz's retrial, a chemist from the state Department of Public Health testified that the substance allegedly found in the back seat of a police cruiser with Melendez-Diaz and two other men tested "positive for the presence of naturally occurring cocaine."
I don't know if that made a difference to the jurors.  I don't know what the cross-examination was like.  I don't know what the other evidence was.  
Here's what I know:  The Constitution said that a criminal defendant has a right to challenge the state's evidence and to confront the state's witnesses.  And when the state's witness actually testified, the jury decided that Melendez-Diaz was
Not Guilty.
With that special resonance.

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