Arguments at the United States Supreme Court continued on December 6, 2011, as the justices heard oral arguments for the case of Sandy Williams, Petitioner v. Illinois Docket (#10-8505).
This is a case that pertains to the Sixth Amendment – specially the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause. The Sixth Amendment states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” The Confrontation Clause deals with the phrase “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” In other words, a person who is on trial has the right to see the witnesses who are offering testimonial evidence against them and they have the right to cross-exam the witnesses during the trial. (Furthermore, the Fourteenth Amendment makes the right to confrontation apply to the states and not just the federal government. The right only applies to criminal prosecutions, not civil cases or other proceedings.)
In this particular case, a DNA report was prepared by a third party, private lab. During the trial, the actual report was not admitted and none of the lab analysts who conducted the tests ever testified. Instead, an Illinois State Police forensic analyst was called to testify. This expert was never involved with nor observed the actual tests, and therefore had no knowledge of the methods used to obtain the results.
Williams was convicted. He challenged his conviction based on the Confrontation Clause – he states that he had no opportunity to challenge the integrity of the person(s) making the DNA report in cross-examination.
The Illinois State Supreme Court upheld the conviction and ruled that the prosecutors could put an expert witness on the stand, even though she was not involved in the tests and had no knowledge of the analytical procedures. The Supreme Court of Illinois reasoned that the expert could testify because she was not actually testifying on the authenticity of the results, she was only offering her opinion on the outcome.
So, how will the justices view the facts? Was the defendant’s constitutional rights violated? In 2004 the Supreme Court ruled in Crawford v. Washington (a Texas case) that prosecutors cannot use out-of-court statements, except in special circumstances. Or, will the state prevail in their argument that Williams had an opportunity to cross-examine the testifying expert? One thing is certain – this case will have a widespread impact on the permissibility of DNA test results in thousands of cases across the country.
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