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In the Supreme Court's 2009 decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, the Court ruled that crime laboratory reports are only admissible against criminal defendants at trial if the analyst responsible for creating the report makes himself available for cross-examination and provides testimony. Thus, prosecutors could only introduce lab reports as evidence in a criminal trial if a live witness was available and competent to testify as to the veracity of the statements pursuant to the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.

The undecided issue remaining was whether the required testimony had to come from the analyst who performed the testing and prepared the report or if testimony from a colleague or supervisor was sufficient.

Last week, the Supreme Court answered this question by affirming and extending Melendez-Diaz. In Bullcoming v. New Mexico, the Court ruled that the testifying witness must be the original lab analyst who conducted the laboratory test. The case involved a New Mexico man, Donald Bullcoming, who was arrested for suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

During trial, prosecutors introduced a crime lab report to show that Bullcoming's blood-alcohol level was elevated. Instead of calling the analyst who conducted the original analysis and prepared/signed the report, prosecutors called the supervisor who had not personally conducted the laboratory tests and had neither observed nor reviewed the analysis, stating that the original lab technician was on unpaid leave.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority and reasoned that the substitute testimony of the supervisor could not adequately convey the original lab analyst's knowledge about the procedure at the time the tests were physically performed. As discussed in previous blog entries, the Sixth Amendment gives a criminal defendant the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him." Justice Ginsburg commented, "The Sixth Amendment does not tolerate dispensing with confrontation simply because a court believes that questioning one witness about another's testimonial statements provide a fair enough opportunity for cross-examination."

The dissent argues that this decision constitutes a "new and serious misstep" and that "Requiring the state to call the technician who filled out a form and recorded the results of a test is a hollow formality."

Justice Sotomayor added a concurrence, stating that the Bullcoming decision applies in the narrow circumstance where the primary reason for creating the crime lab report is to prove a fact at trial. Justice Sotomayor suggested that a supervisor or colleague with a "personal, albeit limited, connection to the scientific test at issue" would constitute acceptable substitute testimony.

Scott Hughes is a criminal defense lawyer in Orange County, California practicing in State and Federal Court.

Categories: Criminal Defense
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