Court broadens confrontation exception

Feb. 28, 2011 at 11:37 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-2 Monday to expand an exception to the Sixth Amendment's guarantee that defendants must be able to confront witnesses.

In a case out of Detroit, police were dispatched to a gas station parking lot where they found Anthony Covington mortally wounded. Covington told police he had been shot by Richard Bryant outside Bryant's house and then had driven himself to the lot.

Police officers testified at trial about the statements Covington made before dying, and Bryant was found guilty of second-degree murder. But the Michigan Supreme Court eventually reversed his conviction, saying that under Supreme Court precedent, Covington's statements were inadmissible testimonial hearsay.

The U.S. Supreme Court "vacated," or threw out, the Michigan high court's ruling, and sent the case back down for a new ruling based on the Monday opinion.

The majority of justices said Covington's identification and description of the shooter and the location of the shooting were not "testimonial statements" because they had a "primary purpose ... to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency. ... Therefore, their admission at Bryant's trial did not violate the confrontation clause."

Justice Elena Kagan, the high court's newest member, did not take part in the case.

Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

Scalia expressed extreme doubt the officers at the scene were reacting to an emergency, adding the majority's "opinion distorts our confrontation clause jurisprudence and leaves it in a shambles."

Reaching back into history and broadening his scope, Scalia said: "It was judges' open-ended determination of what was reliable that violated the trial rights of Englishmen in the political trials of the 16th and 17th centuries. ... The Framers placed the confrontation clause in the Bill of Rights to ensure that those abuses (and the abuses by the Admiralty courts in colonial America) would not be repeated in this country. Not even the least dangerous branch can be trusted to assess the reliability of uncross-examined testimony in politically charged trials or trials implicating threats to national security."

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