Sunday, December 7, 2008

Second Circuit Recognizes Importance of Defendants' Right To Examine Prosecution Witness's Racism

In two cases, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued rulings emphasizing the rights of defendants to cross-examine prosecution witnesses regarding evidence of their racial or ethnic bias.In Brinson v Walker (--- F.3d ----, 2008 WL 4890153 [2nd Cir 11/13/08])the court granted habeas corpus relief and vacated a New York state robbery conviction whee the New York trial judge precluded the black defendant from presenting evidence (both through cross examination and by extrinsic evidence) that the complainant harbored strong racial bias towards blacks. The Court first reviewed the evidentiary right to present evidence or bias and concluded that
where the racial bias sought to be exposed is of sufficient intensity that it is reasonably likely to result in the falsification of the witness's testimony against the accused, a preclusion of cross-examination on the ground that racial bias is general and not specifically directed against the defendant is an unreasonable application of Supreme Court decisional law.

Applying the five factor test set forth by the Supreme Court in Delaware v. Van Arsdall 475 U.S. 673 the Court ruled that the error was not harmless, given the critical role of the complainant's testimony and the absence of other means to establish this bias.

Similarly, in U.S. v. Figueroa --- F.3d ----, 2008 WL 4911158 [2nd Cir 11/18/08], the Court held that an Hispanic defendant's constitutional right to confrontation was violated when the federal district court judge precluded cross-examination of a prosecution witness about the witness's swastika tattoos. The Court explained a person choosing to have swastika tattoos tends to suggest that the person holds racial, religious, or ethnic biases and this evidence of bias is relevant and admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 402. However, given the other evidence of guilt, the Court found this erroneous violation of the right to confrontation to be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.