Recent U.S. Supreme Court Holding Affects a Defendant’s Right to Cross-Examine Scientific Experts in Texas, Nationwide

Last week, the United States Supreme Court affirmed a rape conviction in a criminal case out of Illinois despite that the defendant had no opportunity to question a scientific expert who created a portion of the DNA evidence used to convict him. In a split 5-4 decision, the nation’s high court somewhat unexpectedly held the Confrontation Clause was not violated in Williams v. Illinois. In the past, the Court has normally supported a defendant’s right to confront any witnesses against him or her.

In Williams, a DNA expert testified that a sample of defendant Sandy Williams’ own DNA matched the profile of a sample taken from a rape victim and processed by another laboratory. The expert also testified that she had no part in extracting the DNA taken from the victim’s sample, nor did she vouch for the accuracy of the DNA profile created, although she believed the sample was analyzed by an accredited laboratory. No one from the laboratory that processed the sample taken from the victim attended the trial and the lab tests were not entered into evidence. After the judge in the case allowed the DNA expert’s testimony, Williams argued that he was being denied his constitutional right to cross-examine the forensic analyst who actually prepared the laboratory reports.

According to the Supreme Court, the DNA expert was entitled to mention the lab tests on which she based her opinion despite that she was not competent to enter testimony regarding the facts relating to the DNA tests. The Court stated because the DNA expert who testified was thoroughly cross-examined, Williams’ constitutional rights were not violated.

In her dissent, Justice Kagan disagreed with the Court’s plurality opinion and stated the case was “open-and-shut” based upon previous Confrontation Clause precedent. According to Kagan, the high court should have followed established precedent and thrown out the questionable evidence. She also stated the Williams plurality opinion has only served to leave evidential uncertainty in its wake.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, 42 states and the White House warned that it would be more difficult for scientific experts to testify regarding their professional opinions if the high court ruled in favor of Williams. Additionally, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office stated if the Court held that Williams’ rights were violated, up to 12 individuals would likely be required to testify at each criminal trial in New York that used DNA profiles.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution provides all criminal defendants with the right to confront witnesses against them. Normally, this means a defendant in a criminal matter has the right to cross-examine any witness who provides negative testimony. The Fourteenth Amendment extends the Confrontation Clause to also apply in all state criminal proceedings, including those in Texas.

Although there are exceptions to the Confrontation Clause, the Supreme Court just created a mighty big one. The right to cross-examine your accusers is a fundamental tenet in our criminal justice system. This case could potentially affect every criminal trial involving DNA evidence in Texas and the rest of the nation. This is troubling because the number of cases that rely on DNA or other laboratory evidence seem to be increasing every year. Let’s hope in the future the Supreme Court will not continue to scale back a defendant’s constitutionally protected rights in order to avoid inconveniencing other types of expert witnesses.

If you were accused of a federal crime in Texas or seek to appeal a federal conviction, you should contact an experienced and hardworking Texas criminal defense lawyer to protect your rights.

More Blogs:

Texas Man Receives 70 Months in Federal Prison After Being Caught with More than 2,000 Kilograms of Marijuana, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 25, 2012
Due to Smart Phones, Reported Cyber Crimes Are On the Rise in 2011, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 21, 2012
Additional Resources:

Supreme Court upholds rapist’s conviction, despite questions over DNA evidence used at trial, by the Associated Press, Washington Post

Williams v. Illinois, No. 10-8505, United States Supreme Court (June 18, 2012).

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