Williams v. Illinois narrows Confrontation Clause protection

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ July 4, 2012

In a plurality opinion in Williams v. Illinois that repeatedly uses questionable logic in the formation of its decision, the United States Supreme Court has effectively narrowed defendants’ rights in terms of the Confrontation Clause, a part of the Sixth Amendment. The Confrontation Clause states that “the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The Court held that an expert witness is allowed to testify at trial regarding the results of a lab test that was not performed by him.

In Williams, the petitioner (Sandy Williams) was convicted in trial court of two counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault and one count each of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery. Appealing to Illinois’ appellate court, then to the Illinois Supreme Court, and most recently to the United States Supreme Court, Williams argues that the expert testimony regarding the DNA tests used as evidence against him violated his Sixth Amendment rights (specifically, the Confrontation Clause). Cellmark, a third-party laboratory testing company, performed the DNA tests, and a forensic analyst from the Illinois State Police testified about the results at trial.

The plurality offered two bases for ruling the way they did. First, the Justices cited the fact that the Confrontation Clause has no application to “out-of-court statements that are not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” In this case, the plurality emphasized the fact that the full DNA report was not being used as evidence; rather, the ‘expert’ testified that the condensed DNA profile created by Cellmark was merely being matched with the State’s DNA profile. The Court held that an expert is permitted to testify as to underlying facts (in this case, the test and full DNA report) that are assumed to be true in rendering his or her opinion (in this case, whether the DNA profiles matched), and that such underlying facts fall outside the Confrontation Clause. Therefore, the report and the preparer thereof are not subject to cross-examination, since the expert is not testifying as to the truth of the report. Justice Kagan, taking issue with this rationale, asserts that “admission of the out-of-court statement in this context has no purpose separate from its truth; the factfinder can do nothing with it except assess its truth and so the credibility of the conclusion it serves to buttress.”

The second rationale the Court used for its decision was that the report “was not inherently inculpatory,” and was merely created to “[find] a rapist who was on the loose.” By exercising a fascinating display of circular logic, the Court held that the “profile is evidence that tends to exculpate all but one of the more than 7 billion people in the world today.” However, it is hard to believe the logic that the report was used to find “a rapist who was on the loose,” since the police didn’t receive the results until 13 months after the rape occurred.

At its core, Williams v. Illinois provides that a defendant is not entitled to his Sixth Amendment right to confront his opposing witness in the case of a lab report, so long as the lab report is merely the (assumed-to-be-true) foundation upon which another expert rendered his or her conclusion. Williams is a very confusing case, partially because of the dangerously fine line that it tries to reconcile: the difference between testifying as to the accuracy of a lab report, and testifying that one profile generated from that is a match to another. It answers no questions and asks several, and has no clear and coherent reasoning for any decision whatsoever. Defense counsel must stay on their toes and make sure that this decision is not abused by the prosecution.

Contact a Pennsylvania Criminal Lawyer at Fairlie & Lippy if you have been charged with a serious crime that may involve DNA testing.

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