The victim's voice

In a case reminiscent of the story of the boy who killed his parents and then asked for mercy because he was an orphan, the U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to overturn a California man's murder conviction because the victim's statements about his violent nature were read in court. The case is legally more complex than the apocryphal story about the orphan, but the principle is the same: A defendant shouldn't benefit from silencing his accuser.

Dwayne Giles was convicted in Superior Court in Los Angeles of murdering his former girlfriend, Brenda Avie. Giles didn't deny shooting Avie, but claimed he acted in self-defense. To establish that Giles was prone to violence, prosecutors introduced a statement Avie made to police several weeks before she was killed, complaining that Giles had assaulted her and threatened her with a knife. Giles' conviction was upheld by the California Supreme Court. :a92rrbSXYyAJ: e+Court+of+California& ;hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=4&gl=us"> e+Court+of+California& ;hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=4&gl=us

In appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court last month, Giles offered several arguments. One is that Avie's allegations of brutality were hearsay that should not have been admitted into evidence at the trial. Giles also says he was denied his right under the 6th Amendment to confront witnesses against him. The Constitution's confrontation clause has acquired new importance since the Supreme Court in 2004 overturned a murder conviction because it was based on tape-recorded statements from the defendant's wife, who didn't testify because her husband had invoked spousal privilege.

Protections like the rule against hearsay evidence are sometimes dismissed as "technicalities," but they serve the vital purpose of protecting defendants' rights. But even in its 2004 decision reaffirming the importance of the confrontation clause, the Supreme Court noted the existence of an exception called "forfeiture by wrongdoing," which, Justice Antonin Scalia noted, "extinguishes confrontation claims on essentially equitable grounds" -- that is, because too strict an adherence to the rule would not be in the interests of justice.

The interests of justice were served when the judge in Giles' trial allowed the jury to hear from Avie, even though she couldn't testify in person about the night she died. And although she wasn't cross-examined, Giles was able -- as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out -- to impugn her version of events at his trial. "Isn't there a legitimate rebuttal," Ginsburg asked at oral arguments, "when he is painting her as the aggressor, and she has given a statement that suggests that he is the one who was aggressive?" We hope the Supreme Court answers yes to that question.

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