Supreme Court backs away on courtroom ‘confrontation right’ issue

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court retreated Monday from its view that a criminal defendant’s right to confront his accusers includes trial testimony from the crime lab analyst who identified him as the culprit.

By a splintered 5-4 vote, the justices upheld the conviction of a Chicago rapist who was found guilty based on a DNA match done by a crime lab in Maryland.

The decision in Williams v. Illinois is a victory, albeit a tentative one, for prosecutors and state lawyers. They had worried the high court was on the verge of giving defendants a right to demand testimony from all crime lab technicians whose reports were used against them. They said this would put a costly burden on local and state governments and take technicians and analysts away from their crime labs.


Sandy Williams, the Chicago man, was convicted after an Illinois crime lab analyst testified she had matched a sample of his blood with a DNA profile done on a semen sample taken from the victim. The DNA work was done at a Cellmark lab in Maryland, and the expert who did the profile did not testify.

The 6th Amendment gives defendants a right to be confronted with the witnesses against them, and in recent years, the high court has said that reports from crime labs serve as the crucial evidence for the prosecution. In these cases, the lab analysts must be ready to testify at trial, the court had said.

But in Monday’s decision, the court backed away somewhat and said this rule does not extend to all the analysts whose work served the prosecution.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the testimony of the Illinois crime lab analyst was sufficient. The technician had explained how she matched the blood sample from Williams to the DNA profile done at the Cellmark lab in Maryland. There was no need for live testimony from a Cellmark technician, Alito said.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer agreed with him, and Justice Clarence Thomas concurred separately.

The so-called “confrontation” right has divided the court in an unusual way. Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative, has taken the strongest stand in favor of requiring live testimony, including from lab technicians. On Monday, he joined a dissent written by Justice Elena Kagan and two of her liberal colleagues, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Kagan said today’s splintered majority opinion has “left significant confusion” over whether lab technicians will be required to testify in court for the prosecution.


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