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Supreme Court hears arguments on confrontation clause, right to counsel

The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] in two cases on Tuesday. In Williams v. Illinois [transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the justices heard the latest in a series of arguments over the Confrontation Clause [text] and will decide if a defendant's rights are violated if the state permits an expert witness to testify about the results of a DNA test performed at a private laboratory, when the analysts who performed the tests do not testify, and the expert witness has not had an opportunity to confront the actual analysts. The attorney for Sandra Williams, whose conviction was upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court, argued that without anyone from the lab present to testify about the DNA results, his rights were violated, especially since the lab tests themselves were not entered into evidence. Williams' counsel further argued that there is not an exception in the held understanding that experts may testify using whatever background material that furthers their expert opinion, and claimed that the DNA test was testified to for its ultimate truthfulness, not to aid the expert's knowledge.

Now this—I can give an example or an analogy. Suppose a police officer were to testify: A witness gave me this photograph and told me: This is a photograph of the offender. I compared this photograph to a photograph of the defendant. I found that they match. Now, the police officer, he compared the photographs. You know, we are not contesting [the testifying analyst's] match. But the statement that this is the photo of the offender, that's not the officer's statement. That's a statement of the witness who gave him that photograph.
Counsel for the state of Illinois argued that the Confrontation Clause does not apply in this scenario: "an expert can always testify about the material that they relied on, whether that material is ever admitted into evidence and sometimes that material could never be admitted into evidence." In support of Illinois' position, the US government argued that there can be no Confrontation Clause-issue, because the analyst who testified had to explain her lack of hands-on experience with the test. Although an analyst from the lab would make the state's case stronger, as the witness they presented does not have firsthand experience with the lab or its procedures, the Confrontation Clause does not obligate the state to present the strongest case possible.

In Martel v. Clair [transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the court will determine whether a condemned state prisoner in federal habeas corpus proceedings is entitled to replace his court-appointed counsel with another court-appointed lawyer because he expresses dissatisfaction and alleges that his counsel was failing to pursue potentially important evidence. The attorney the state of California, argued that due to numerous safeguards and procedural rulings on the effectiveness of Clair's counsel, the state had done due diligence in protecting his rights and did not have an obligation to grant him new counsel after 12 years of proceedings. The attorney for Clair disagreed and argued that Clair did not have a right to new counsel, merely a right to a thorough investigation of his current counsel, which he was denied.

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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