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SCOTUS: Lab techs must testify

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A decision today from the Supreme Court of the United States will have an immediate impact on Indiana, where state justices are considering at least two cases about whether lab technicians who've tested evidence in a case must appear on the stand.

The nation's high court offered an answer to that question: Yes, those techs must testify.

In its 5-4 ruling in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, No. 07-591, the majority determined that forensic analysts must be called to offer "testimonial evidence" about any report they prepare before that can be admitted as trial evidence.

Turning to its holdings in the cases of Crawford v. Washington, 541 U. S. 36 (2004), and Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813 (2006), the majority used its rational that the trial use of out-of-court statements made to police by an unavailable witness violates that criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him or her.

Luis Melendez-Diaz was arrested while making a cocaine sale in a parking lot, and at trial bags of cocaine he'd allegedly distributed were introduced into evidence along with drug-analysis certificates prepared by a lab technician who identified them as cocaine. A jury convicted Melendez-Diaz of distributing and trafficking cocaine, but he appealed on the Sixth Amendment grounds under the Crawford ruling. The state's intermediate appellate court rejected those claims in an unpublished opinion, referring to them in a footnote as being "without merit," and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court also denied his appeal. But this SCOTUS ruling changes that.

"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," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in its 61-page opinion that reverses and remands the Massachusetts appellate judgment.

Dissenting, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito joined Justice Anthony Kennedy, who opined that the majority's ruling "sweeps away an accepted rule governing the admission of scientific evidence ... (that) extends across at least 35 states and six Federal Courts of Appeals. ...

"It is remarkable that the Court so confidently disregards a century of jurisprudence," Justice Kennedy wrote. "We learn now that we have misinterpreted the Confrontation Clause - hardly an arcane or seldom-used provision of the Constitution - for the first 218 years of its existence."

Later, he wrote, "The Court's opinion suggests this will be a body of formalistic and wooden rules, divorced from precedent, common sense, and the underlying purpose of the Clause. Its ruling has vast potential to disrupt criminal procedures that already give ample protections against the misuse of scientific evidence."

With this ruling, the Indiana Supreme Court can now move forward on its own set of cases that have likely been held up as a result of this pending SCOTUS decision. Those cases are: Richard Pendergrass v. State, No. 71S03-0808-CR-445, which justices heard arguments on in October after the Indiana Court of Appeals had decided last summer that his rights weren't violated by admitting evidence without testimony; and Ricky L. Jackson v. State, No. 27A02-0710-CR-902, which is pending transfer after the Indiana Court of Appeals decided last summer that the forensic report shouldn't be admitted without the lab technician's testimony.

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  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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