The Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to confront witnesses against the defendant at trial. This right to confrontation includes the right to cross-examine the witness.
Recently, the United States Supreme Court ruled that statements made during an ongoing emergency may be introduced into evidence in a criminal trial even if the person that made the statements dies before the trial. In the case of Michigan v. Bryant, police responded to reports of a shooting and found a man who had been shot lying near his car. The man reportedly informed police of the identity of the man who allegedly shot him and died later that morning at the hospital.
During trial, the police officers were permitted to tell the jury the victim’s alleged statements made while in the parking lot under the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule. The jury consequently found the defendant guilty of murder.
The Michigan Court of Appeals and Michigan Supreme Court both held that the victim’s statements were erroneously introduced at trial in violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation, and both courts reversed the murder conviction. The Prosecutors appealed this matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
With Justice Sotomayor writing for the majority, the Supreme Court ruled that the statements introduced at the trial of the alleged murder victim through the testimony of police officers did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation. The majority noted that while accused persons can confront witnesses who testify against them under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, exceptions and extenuating circumstances may make statements such as the ones presented in this case admissible.
The Court reasoned that police take statements during their questioning with the view towards “ending a threatening situation” in an ongoing emergency and not with prosecution in mind. Consequently, in circumstances involving an ongoing emergency, a witness is less inclined to fabricate statements and the “Confrontation Clause does not require such statements to be subject to the crucible of cross-examination.” As a result, the Court says, “This logic is not unlike that justifying the excited utterance exception in hearsay law.”
In his scathing dissent, Justice Scalia suggests that the majority’s ruling distorts the Supreme Court’s “Confrontation Clause jurisprudence and leaves it in shambles” and that the opinion demeans the Supreme Court. He writes, “five officers conducting successive examinations of a dying man with the primary purpose, not of obtaining and preserving his testimony regarding his killer, but of protecting him, them, and others from a murderer somewhere on the loose is so transparently false that professing to believe it demeans this institution.”
All citations taken from Michigan v. Bryant, 131 S.Ct. 1143