Thoughts from a Raleigh Criminal Lawyer: Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts

This post is about a technical area of the law, so if you’re not interested in Evidence Law or the Confrontation Clause, this won’t interest you.

The United States Constitution says that defendants have the right to confront witnesses who testify against them.  This is the general constitutional rule that prevents hearsay in criminal cases.  Hearsay is, briefly, an out-of-court statement that a party (either the defendant or the prosecutor in a criminal case) wishes to introduce to prove the fact of the matter.

In many cases, hearsay can be avoided by simply having the person come into court, be sworn, and testify.  But what happens when the person is “unavailable.”  For 20 years, the Supreme Court held that if the person is “unavailable,” but the out of court statement that a party wishes to introduce has “adequate indicia of reliability” or has “particularized guarantees of trustworthiness,” then the out of court statement may be introduced under a hearsay exception.

That meant that a lot of out-of-court statements were generally admitted into court where witnesses were unavailable at trial because courts frequenlty found that there was “adequate indicia of reliability.”

In 2004, the Supreme Court changed the rule in Crawford v. Washington.  It said, instead, that the Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to confront witnesses against him.  Therefore, if the out of court statement was a “testimonial” statement, then it could not be admitted if the defendant did not have the opportunity to cross-examine the person.

But the Supreme Court did not define what were testimonial and what were non-testimonial statements.  In a subsequent case, Davis v. Washington, the Supreme Court said that statements made by a victim during a 911 call were not testimonial, and therefore could be admitted by the prosecutor against the defendant even though the defendant had had no prior opportunity to cross examine the victim.

This year the Supreme Court has decided another important Confrontation Clause case in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts. The case involved Melendez-Diaz who was convicted of distributing and trafficking in crack cocaine.  He had been arrested in 2001.  At his trial, crime lab reports were admitted.  They dealt with substances taken from one of the men arrested at the scene and from the back seat of a police cruiser.  The trial judge told the jury that it could rely on the chemist’s reports as proof that the substance seized contained cocaine. However, no scientist or expert testified as to having performed the tests, or having written the report.

The Supreme Court ruled that such reports were testimonial, and as such were out-of-court statements inadmissible as hearsay unless the state provided the expert who had conducted the underlying test.

The result of this rule is two-fold.  First, it creates a requirement that the state provide the actual scientist to testify about the contents of the report.  Second, in lieu of that requirement, it allows the state to use a “notice-and-demand” statute that permits the state to alert the defendant that it intends to submit a lab report as evidence at trial. In that case, the defendant has the option to raise an objection to the admission of the report, which would allow the state time to bring the expert to court to testify.

North Carolina has applied the Supreme Court’s new rule in State v. Galindo (pdf).  The defendant in Galindo had been convicted of trafficking, but while the laboratory supervisor testified, the actual scientist who had weighed the cocaine did not testify.  As a result, the NC Court of Appeals has held the state violated the U.S. Constitution’s Confrontation Clause.


Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.