Judges: defendant should be able to confront witness

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered the District Court to grant a convicted murderer’s habeas petition, finding the admission of out-of-court statements at his trial violated the man’s Sixth Amendment right of confrontation.

In 2004, a state court convicted Antonio Jones of robbery and four counts of murder. There was little evidence connecting him to the crime except for the testimony of Lenzo Aaron, who took a plea deal that dropped the murder charges against him in connection to the crime. He claimed Jones participated in the robbery and murder of four people inside a Gary apartment.

Jones challenged Aaron’s credibility and the state was allowed to present testimony from a detective detailing the tip that led to Jones’ arrest. The tip came from Jeffrey Lewis, the brother of another man who was allegedly there during the incident. Lewis told detectives what his brother had told him about the crimes. Lewis was never called to testify and Jones wasn’t able to confront him pursuant to the Sixth Amendment.

A split Indiana Court of Appeals rejected Jones’ argument that his Sixth Amendment right to confront was violated. The District Court denied Jones’ habeas petition and also denied his request for a certificate of appealability.

In the 48-page opinion handed down Thursday in Antonio Jones v. James Basinger, No. 09-3577, the Circuit Court pointed out that the trial record shows that Jones repeatedly suffered violations of his Sixth Amendment right to confront Lewis and his informant. Lewis’ statement to police was allowed at trial to establish the truth of his out-of-court declarations, but it was really double-hearsay and testimonial.

Judge David Hamilton also noted that the trial court had correctly identified the governing legal rules in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), but unreasonably applied those rules in this case. The state court erred by applying a “course of investigation” exception to Jones’ case that was so excessively broad as to allow the admission of testimonial hearsay whenever a defendant attempts to challenge the strength of the evidence or the veracity of the prosecutor’s witness against him, Judge Hamilton wrote. The Circuit judges cited Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968), and Tennessee v. Street, 471 U.S. 409 (1985), to support their holding.

The judges found the admission of the detective’s testimony regarding what Lewis had said was not a harmless error, as both the trial court and District Court had concluded.

“Both courts failed to apply the correct legal standard,” wrote Judge Hamilton. “Both seem to have simply imagined what the record would have shown without Lewis’ statement and asked whether the remaining evidence was legally sufficient to sustain a finding of guilt. That analysis ignores the significant prejudicial effect the error can have on a jury’s ability to evaluate fairly the remaining evidence.”

The U.S. Constitution demands that Jones have an opportunity to confront the informant if his statements to Lewis, as reported to the police detectives, are to be used as evidence against Jones. The Circuit judges ordered the District Court to grant Jones’ habeas petition, directing the state to release Jones within 120 days of the issuance of the mandate unless the state decides to retry Jones within that time.


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