Tuesday, December 13, 2011

DNA Evidence and the Confrontation Clause

By the_tjb
Williams v. Illinois, was recently argued before the Supreme Court. This case concerns the issue of when a DNA analyst testifies at trial that he or she has compared analyses of two DNA samples and found a match-- does the prosecution also have to produce the experts who produced the analyses, or only the expert who reviewed them both and made the match? The oral arguments to Williams v. Illinois, can be heard through this link.

According to an article in The Atlantic, interest in this case is from a recent appeal by an Illinois rape convict and is part of a recent series of cases testing the reach of a defendant’s right to be “confronted by the witnesses against him.” A narrow majority of the Supreme Court has expanded that Sixth Amendment right in cases involving a range of witness testimony, including the introduction of forensic reports.

The facts of the case are as follows: Police took a sample of Sandy Williams’s blood after he was arrested on an unrelated charge. A lab technician at the official state lab then sequenced his DNA. A state expert in turn compared the chart produced by that sequencing with another chart, drawn from a sample taken in a “rape kit” from the victim. That chart came from a sequencing conducted in an out-of-state lab. The state-lab tech testified that proper procedures were followed. The expert testified that the two charts were a close match. The out-of-state lab was accredited, but beyond that little was introduced regarding the procedures that took place on their end. Williams’s attorneys moved to strike the evidence and thus far the Illinois state court has refused.

The case has potentially important implications for both sides of the criminal law practice. Requiring testimony from multiple experts who will essentially be testifying to the same thing, makes criminal prosecution more costly. However, allowing only one expert to testify raises the chance that flawed DNA may sway the jury.

The new dispute, closely watched by prosecutors and defense lawyers nationwide, specifically addresses situations in which a report is not introduced at trial but is used as the basis for testimony by another expert witness. A ruling would refine the rules for when analysts must be available for trial.

Forty-two other states have entered the case on the side of Illinois, arguing that scientific witnesses should be able to offer independent analyses of forensic evidence without the need to bring in the people who generated the underlying data. Defense groups such as the California Public Defenders Association counter that if those who prepared the underlying reports are not called, a defendant will not be able to probe their qualifications or record.

The issue is critical in criminal prosecutions because of the important role DNA evidence has developed since it was first introduced as evidence in the 1990's. It’s seen by many juries as rock-solid proof that a crime was or was not committed, even if that conclusion is misleading in the context of the entire case. Justice Alito wrote as much in an earlier case, saying “DNA testing... even when performed in perfect accordance with protocols - often fails to provide ‘absolute proof’ of anything.”

A ruling in the case of Williams v. Illinois is likely by the end of June when the Court recesses for the summer.

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