Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts

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In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 2009 U.S. LEXIS 4734(June 25, 2009), a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court held that criminal defendants have the right to cross-examine forensic analysts who submit affidavits concerning lab testing of evidence. The Court found this right to be guaranteed by the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, and fully incorporated against the States.

The Court held, "This case involves little more than the application of our holding in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 124 S. Ct. 1354, 158 L. Ed. 2d 177. The Sixth Amendment does not permit the prosecution to prove its case via ex parte out-of-court affidavits, and the admission of such evidence against Melendez-Diaz was error. The Court did not reach the question of whether the error was harmless, however, and remanded for a determination of that issue.

The case reached the Supreme Court in an unusual way, as the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts denied review and thus the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert. from an opinion of the Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion for the Court, applying his ruling in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004):

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, made applicable to the States via the Fourteenth Amendment, Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400, 403, 85 S. Ct. 1065, 13 L. Ed. 2d 923 (1965), provides that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to be confronted with the witnesses against him." In Crawford, after reviewing the Clause's historical underpinnings, we held that it guarantees a defendant's right to confront those "who 'bear testimony'" against him. 541 U.S., at 51, 124 S. Ct. 1354, 158 L. Ed. 2d 177. A witness's testimony against a defendant is thus inadmissible unless the witness appears at trial or, if the witness is unavailable, the defendant had a prior opportunity for cross-examination. Id., at 54, 124 S. Ct. 1354, 158 L. Ed. 2d 177.
Our opinion described the class of testimonial statements covered by the Confrontation Clause as follows:
"Various formulations of this core class of testimonial statements exist: ex parte in-court testimony or its functional equivalent -- that is, material such as affidavits, custodial examinations, prior testimony that the defendant was unable to cross-examine, or similar pretrial statements that declarants would reasonably expect to be used prosecutorially; extrajudicial statements ... contained in formalized testimonial materials, such as affidavits, depositions, prior testimony, or confessions; statements that were made under circumstances which would lead an objective witness reasonably to believe that the statement would be available for use at a later trial." Id., at 51-52, 124 S. Ct. 1354, 158 L. Ed. 2d 177 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

Justice Clarence Thomas, providing the pivotal fifth vote for the majority, limited its scope as follows:[1]

I write separately to note that I continue to adhere to my position that "the Confrontation Clause is implicated by extrajudicial statements only insofar as they are contained in formalized testimonial materials, such as affidavits, depositions, prior testimony, or confessions." I join the Court's opinion in this case because the documents at issue in this case "are quite plainly affidavits." As such, they "fall within the core class of testimonial statements" governed by the Confrontation Clause.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a vigorous dissent, and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sam Alito.


  1. citations omitted