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Court split on if lab tech must testify

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The state's highest court was split in its ruling on whether the failure of a lab technician who processed DNA evidence to testify at a man's trial violated his Sixth Amendment rights.

The Thursday ruling, Richard Pendergrass v. State of Indiana, No. 71S03-0808-CR-445, had the majority of justices finding the proof submitted in Richard Pendergrass' trial was consistent with the Sixth Amendment based on the recent Supreme Court of the United States ruling in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 129 S. Ct. 2527 (2009). In that case, no witnesses were called to testify on the certificates of analysis that said the substance found in seized bags was cocaine. The SCOTUS held those certificates were testimonial and the defendant had the right to confront those who swore to the accuracy of the tests. The justices decided the DNA evidence in Pendergrass' case was also testimony as defined by Melendez-Diaz.

Pendergrass was convicted of two counts of child molesting based in part on DNA evidence showing he was the likely father of his victim's aborted fetus.

The majority - Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard, and Justices Brent Dickson and Frank Sullivan - interpreted the majority opinion in the SCOTUS ruling to say that not everyone who worked on the evidence must be called and the Confrontation Clause leaves discretion with the prosecution on which evidence to present. They believed Pendergrass' right to confrontation wasn't violated because the lab technician's supervisor, who personally checked the test results, and an expert who used that data to interpret the results were put on the stand for cross-examination during his trial.

"If the chief mechanism for ensuring reliability of evidence is to be cross-examination, Pendergrass had that benefit here," wrote Chief Justice Shepard. "... Here, the prosecution supplied a supervisor with direct involvement in the laboratory's technical processes and the expert who concluded that those processes demonstrated Pendergrass was the father of the aborted fetus. We conclude this sufficed for Sixth Amendment purposes."

Justices Robert Rucker and Theodore Boehm dissented, with Justice Rucker writing that because of Melendez-Diaz, the lab technician who performed the actual tests was also required to testify. The dissent argued the majority in the instant case relied on comments directed at a very narrow proposition concerning the chain of custody. Justice Rucker wrote the SCOTUS majority opinion says that absent a showing the analysts were unable to testify at trial and that petitioner had a prior chance to cross-examine them, the petitioner was entitled to confront the analysts at trial. There's no evidence in Pendergrass' case that the lab supervisor did anything more than "rubber stamp" the results of the lab technician's work, continued the justice.

"Although a supervisor might be able to testify to her charge's general competence or honesty, this is no substitute for a jury's first-hand observations of the analyst that performs a given procedure; and a supervisor's initials are no substitute for an analyst's opportunity to carefully consider, under oath, the veracity of her results," Justice Rucker wrote.

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  1. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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