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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 The state's intermediate appellate court rejected those claims in an unpublished opinion, referring to them in a footnote as being "without merit," and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court also denied his appeal.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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