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High court clarifies harmless error under Sixth Amendment

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The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer to a man’s case in order to address the application of harmless error to Sixth Amendment violations involving confronting those who create laboratory reports.

Max Koenig claimed the trial court violated his constitutional right to confrontation when it admitted a lab report without allowing him to confront the person who created it. The Indiana Court of Appeals held the error was harmless because there was sufficient evidence to support his conviction of dealing in a schedule II controlled substance as a Class B felony without the report. The judges noted in a footnote in their opinion that a harmless error analysis after Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), is not applicable to the Sixth Amendment.

In Max Koenig v. State of Indiana, No. 42S04-1009-CR-505, the justices disagreed, finding Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967), to be applicable to these types of cases. In Chapman, the United States Supreme Court held that in the context of a particular case, certain constitutional errors may have been “harmless” in terms of their effect on the fact-finding process at trial. A Chapman harmless error analysis turns on a number of factors, including the importance of the witness’ testimony in the prosecution’s case and the overall strength of the prosecution’s case, wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.

“Since Chapman, we have reaffirmed the principle that an otherwise valid conviction should not be set aside if the reviewing court may confidently say, on the whole record, that the constitutional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” he wrote.

The justices also didn’t find that Crawford limited the application of Chapman.

“A Chapman analysis does not involve a substitution for confrontation, but a means to cope with inevitable mistakes that creep into trial proceedings which beyond a reasonable doubt could not affect the verdict,” he wrote.

In Koenig’s case, he admitted to giving drugs to his friend, told police where he got the methadone, and his statements to police were corroborated by a witness. The confrontation error in his case was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

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