Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why Supreme Court Justices Matter

On Wednesday, June 25th in a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled to overturn the murder conviction of Dwayne Giles. In the original trial, a police officer read the statements of Brenda Avie from a police report that was filed a few weeks before the murder, in which Avie states that Giles had threatened to kill her.

This case involved interpretation of the Confrontation Clause, the 6th Amendment Constutitutional right to confront one's accuser, and whether that right is revoked in a murder trial where the "accuser" is dead.

From the Wisconsin Law Journal:

The high court rejected the State of California’s theory that the defendant, by killing the witness, waived his right to question her. The majority found that theory was contrary to the common law embodied in the Confrontation Clause.
David Savage of the Los Angeles Times predicted the ruling.

Although it sounds far-fetched, Giles's claim could prevail in the Supreme Court. The court took up of the case of Giles v. California to test the outer limits to the so-called confrontation right in the Sixth Amendment. It says, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

Until 2004, judges usually allowed jurors to hear "reliable" second-hand accounts of what witnesses said if the witness was not available. For example, a police officer could report on what a missing witness had said. But in a case that year, Justice Antonin Scalia insisted this "hearsay" violated the defendant's rights under the Sixth Amendment. "Where testimonial statements are at issue, the only [test] of reliability ... is the one the Constitution actually prescribes: confrontation," Justice Scalia said at the time in Crawford v. Washington.

During yesterday's argument, Justice Scalia said the court should stick to a no-exceptions rule. He said Giles's rights were violated because a police officer had testified at his trial that the murder victim, Brenda Avie, had said Giles threatened to kill her.
And indeed, it is Justice Scalia whose majority opinion is being quoted.

Justice Antonin Scalia said in his majority opinion that domestic violence, though "an intolerable offense," does not justify "abridging the rights of criminal defendants."
The police report in question details an incident in which police were called to a domestic disturbance and found Brenda Avie and Dwayne Giles engaged in an argument. Brenda Avie appeared to have a "bump on her head" and told police that Giles had flashed a knife and threatened to kill her. Giles has confessed to shooting Avie and fleeing the scene but claims it was in self-defense. Justice Stephen Breyer echos in his dissent what this blog feels about the ruling.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the court should have ruled that defendants forfeit their constitutional right to confront witnesses when they are responsible for the witness' absence from trial. Wednesday's ruling, Breyer said, "grants the defendant not fair treatment, but a windfall."
There is a small source of hope in the ruling for domestic violence advocates.
That paragraph states in relevant part, “Acts of domestic violence often are intended to dissuade a victim from resorting to outside help, and include conduct designed to prevent testimony to police officers or cooperation in criminal prosecutions. Where such an abusive relationship culminates in murder, the evidence may support a finding that the crime expressed the intent to isolate the victim and to stop her from reporting abuse to the authorities or cooperating with a criminal prosecution -- rendering her prior statements admissible under the forfeiture doctrine. Earlier abuse, or threats of abuse, intended to dissuade the victim from resorting to outside help would be highly relevant to this inquiry, as would evidence of ongoing criminal proceedings at which the victim would have been expected to testify.”
Otherwise, legal experts worry that a number of murder trials may be revisited, and even thrown out, because the victim wasn't present to share her story, thanks to the person who killed her and may now get away.

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