Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Why Supreme Court Justices Matter

On Wednesday, June 25th in a 6-3 vote the Supreme Court ruled to overturn the murder conviction of Dwayne Giles . In the original trial, a police officer read the statements of Brenda Avie from a police report that was filed a few weeks before the murder in which Avie states that Giles had threatened to kill her. This action allegedly violated Giles' rights when he was not allowed to "confront" his accuser. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the reason for her absence is no longer a mitigating factor. David Savage of the Los Angeles Times predicted the ruling.
Although it sounds far-fetched, Giles's claim could prevail in the Supreme Court. The court took up of the case of Giles v. California to test the outer limits to the so-called confrontation right in the Sixth Amendment. It says, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

Until 2004, judges usually allowed jurors to hear "reliable" second-hand accounts of what witnesses said if the witness was not available. For example, a police officer could report on what a missing witness had said. But in a case that year, Justice Antonin Scalia insisted this "hearsay" violated the defendant's rights under the Sixth Amendment. "Where testimonial statements are at issue, the only [test] of reliability ... is the one the Constitution actually prescribes: confrontation," Justice Scalia said at the time in Crawford v. Washington.

During yesterday's argument, Justice Scalia said the court should stick to a no-exceptions rule. He said Giles's rights were violated because a police officer had testified at his trial that the murder victim, Brenda Avie, had said Giles threatened to kill her.

And indeed, it is Justice Scalia who's majority opinion is being quoted.

Justice Antonin Scalia said in his majority opinion that domestic violence, though "an intolerable offense," does not justify "abridging the rights of criminal defendants."

The police report in question details an incident in which police were called to a domestic disturbance and found Brenda Avie and Dwayne Giles engaged in an argument. Brenda Avie appeared to have a "bump on her head" and told police that Giles had flashed a knife and threatened to kill her. Giles has confessed to shooting Avie and fleeing the scene but claims it was in self-defense. Justice Stephen Breyer echos in his dissent what this blogger feels about the ruling.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the court should have ruled that defendants forfeit their constitutional right to confront witnesses when they are responsible for the witness' absence from trial. Wednesday's ruling, Breyer said, "grants the defendant not fair treatment, but a windfall."

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