Monday, December 5, 2011

Subjecting forensic analysts to cross-examination is good policy.

From the NY Times: "ON Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Williams v. Illinois, the latest in a string of cases addressing whether the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause — which gives the accused in a criminal case the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” — applies to forensic analysts who produce reports for law enforcement. In other words, should an analyst responsible for, say, a fingerprint report have to show up at trial to face questions about the report?

A logical application of the law produces an easy answer: Yes. The court has defined a “witness against” a defendant as a person who provides information to law enforcement to aid a criminal investigation. That is exactly what forensic analysts do.

Subjecting forensic analysts to cross-examination is also good policy. According to a recent National Academy of Sciences study, forensic science is not nearly as reliable as it is perceived to be. DNA specimens, for instance, are sometimes contaminated; fingerprint, ballistics and even run-of-the-mill drug and alcohol analyses depend on human interpretation and thus are subject to error. Worse, investigations over the past decade have revealed outright incompetence and fraud in many crime labs. So it makes sense to subject the authors of lab reports to cross-examination — a procedure the court has called “the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.”

Despite all this, the Supreme Court has been sharply divided on the issue. In similar cases in 2009 and earlier this year, in which I represented the defendants, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr. accepted claims by state governments that, simply put, confrontation in this context costs too much. It is far more efficient, these justices contend, to let analysts simply mail their reports to court. Having to appear at trials pulls them away from their labs, and only occasionally proves more revealing than their written testimony. Hence, these justices maintain, “scarce state resources” are better committed elsewhere.

Given that several states have long required forensic analysts to come to court, one might think that this financial argument would not have gained much traction. Justice Antonin Scalia, in fact, called the argument a “bogeyman.” But the four dissenting justices not only accepted it but deemed it powerful enough to trump the commands of constitutional text and precedent.

The same battle lines are being drawn again in the case to be heard next week (for which I have signed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the defendant). In Williams v. Illinois, the defendant contends that he should have been given the right to confront an analyst in the lab that generated a DNA profile from the crime scene. Yet the State of Illinois argues that the extra cost of bringing that witness into court was unnecessary, because the defendant had an opportunity to question a different analyst who compared that profile to the defendant’s and concluded that it was a match.

A friend-of-the-court brief by the Manhattan district attorney’s office pushes the state’s argument one step further, warning that a ruling in the defendant’s favor would prove so costly that it would “force prosecutors to forgo forensic DNA analysis” in future cases. Consequently, the brief continues, defendants in rape and murder cases “might well be prosecuted solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony,” which is notoriously unreliable and could lead to convictions of many “innocent individuals.”

This is an outrageous assertion. Nothing in the outcome of the Williams case, which deals only with the admissibility of evidence, will preclude prosecutors from using DNA testing to determine whether they have the right guy. Presumably, prosecutors concerned about whether they imprison (or, in some states, execute) innocent people will continue to do such testing whenever possible, no matter how much it will cost to enter the results as evidence.

But the assertion in the Manhattan district attorney’s brief reflects — in a particularly dramatic way — some prosecutors’ belief that they can bully the court into refusing to enforce a constitutional guarantee simply by arguing that such enforcement would be an administrative and financial burden.

There’s nothing new here. In the 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, Alabama and several other states filed a brief urging the court to refrain from interpreting the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the “assistance of counsel” to require states to provide lawyers to poor defendants accused of felonies. The brief said such a rule would impose on states “an unbearably onerous financial burden to pay the fees of attorneys.”

The court, of course, was not moved. States have adapted. And the Gideon case has become a cornerstone of American jurisprudence. It’s almost impossible now to imagine how a trial could be considered fair without that basic procedural guarantee.

The court should follow this lesson in Williams and refuse to be cowed by prosecutorial bogeymen. It unquestionably costs money to deliver the fundamental demands of justice. But the price is not nearly so high as the states usually claim. And the price of failing to enforce basic procedural rights is, in the long run, much higher ..."

Click here to read the whole article at the New York Times.

Enjoy.

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