Monday, January 2, 2012

Bullcoming v New Mexico (131 SCt 2705) Applied By the Fourth Department

In recent years, the application of the right to confrontation in the context of laboratory or DNA test evidence has been the subject of much litigation at the United States Supreme Court

In Melendez-Diaz v Massachusetts (129 S.Ct. 2527 [2009]), the Supreme Court held that it violate the right of confrontation for a prosecutor to submit a chemical drug test report without the testimony of a person who performed the test subject to confrontation. Thus, the admission at trial of three sworn “certificates of analysis” or affidavits showing the results of the forensic analysis performed on samples of the seized white powder was reversible error where the analyst did not testify. The Court rejected the ideas that the right to confrontation only applied when the evidence accused someone of a crime or didn’t apply to scientific tests, noting that crime labs have provided unreliable evidence in the past, and said that confrontation would help find the truth.

Then, in Bullcoming v New Mexico (564 U.S. __,131 S.Ct. 2705 [2011]), the Court held that under the confrontation clause “the accused’s right is to be confronted with the analyst who made the certification, unless that analyst is unavailable at trial, and the accused had an opportunity, pretrial, to cross-examine that particular scientist.”

However, in People v Pealer (2011 NY Slip Op 08397 [4th Dept 11/18/11] the Appellate Division Fourth Department held that these holdings do not apply to the calibration and simulator solution certificates used in verifying the accuracy of the breathalyzer test, on the ground that these documents were testimonial subject to the right to confrontation.

A month later, in People v Morrison (2011 NY Slip Op 09450 [12/23/11]) the Fourth Department had a second opportunity to consider the application of Bullcoming. The Court held

Defendant further contends that the admission in evidence of a certified DNA report prepared by an analyst who did not testify at trial and the testimony of an analyst who testified at trial regarding that report violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause of the US Constitution Sixth Amendment (see generally Crawford v Washington, 541 US 36, 50-54). We agree. "The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a defendant the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him [or her]' " (People v Brown, 13 NY3d 332, 338). "This provision bars admission of testimonial statements of a witness who did not appear at trial unless he [or she] was unavailable to testify, and the defendant . . . had a prior opportunity for cross-examination' " (id., quoting Crawford, 541 US at 53-54). We must therefore determine whether the statements were "testimonial," because only testimonial statements are subject to the Confrontation Clause (see Davis v Washington, 547 US 813, 821).

In Brown (13 NY3d at 336), the report in question contained machine-generated raw data, graphs and charts of a male specimen's DNA characteristics that were isolated from a rape kit. The Court of Appeals held that the report was not testimonial inasmuch as there were "no conclusions, interpretations, or comparisons apparent in the report" (id. at 340; see People v Thompson, 70 AD3d 866, 866-867, lv denied 15 NY3d 757). The forensic biologist who conducted the actual analysis that linked the defendant's DNA profile to the profile in the victim's rape kit was in fact called by the People as a witness in Brown (id. at 340). That was not the case here, where the analyst who performed the tests and concluded that the DNA mixture profile from the vaginal swab sample was consistent with DNA from the victim mixed with DNA from defendant was never called to testify. Contrary to the People's contention, the analyst who was called to testify, i.e., the supervisor of the other analyst, did not perform her own independent review and analysis of the DNA data. Rather, her testimony makes clear that she had nothing to do with the analysis performed by the uncalled witness, and that her only involvement was simply reading the report after it was completed to ensure that the uncalled witness followed proper procedure. The People could not substitute her testimony for that of the actual analyst who performed the tests in order to avoid a violation of the Confrontation Clause (see Bullcoming v New Mexico, ___ US ___, ___, 131 S Ct 2705, 2709-2710).


The Court then determined that this error was harmless, since the defendant had confessed.

Whether the holding of People v Brown (13 NY3d 332) was correct will likely be decided by the Supreme Court in Williams v. Illinois, 131 S Ct ___ (cert. granted June 28, 2011), which has been argued and is pending decision.

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