Confrontation Clause Debacle: Supreme Court Muddies the Water by Ruling that Report on Which Expert Relied Need Not Be Admitted or Subject to Cross-Examination

June 19, 2012 by Paul Kish

One of the few bright spots in the Supreme Court's criminal law cases over the past few years has been the resurgence in emphasis on the protections afforded by the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause. However, yesterday in a badly fractured 5-4 decision, the High Court took a step backwards, or maybe even sideways. The case is Williams v. Illinois.

Recall that a couple of years ago the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors cannot use crime lab reports in criminal trials unless the analysts responsible for creating the report came to court and gave live testimony. Last year that rule was reaffirmed and deepened when the Court said the Confrontation Clause was violated if the prosecutor called a colleague or supervisor of the analyst who did the work.

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Mateos: An Eleventh Circuit Reminder to Criminal Defense Lawyers to Brush Up on the Rules of Evidence

October 26, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Last week the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in United States v. Mateos, a Medicare fraud case in which the Court held that exclusion of an exculpatory videotape was harmless error. This case is an important reminder to all trial lawyers to remain as well-versed as possible in the law of evidence to best represent our clients.

The defendants were employees of a clinic that purported to treat HIV patients. The clinic’s two doctors saw 70 patients per week, each of which was paid to complain about bleeding disorders. Every patient received either saline or a diluted dose of an expensive and medically unnecessary drug, and then the clinic billed Medicare for full treatments. The clinic received more than $8 million from Medicare during the five months that it was open.

Doctor Alvarez’s defense at trial was that she had not known about the fraud. She tried to introduce a video in which a member of the conspiracy assured her that the clinic was not involved in fraud to show that she had not been aware, but the video was excluded as inadmissible hearsay. The Eleventh Circuit held that the video was not hearsay because it was offered for a purpose other than the truth of the matter asserted. However, the Court held that the error was harmless because the defense had elicited the exculpatory content of the video through testimony.

The Court also upheld an upward departure in sentencing, noting that, under the new healthcare laws, the sentence would have been within the guidelines range had the fraud been committed today. Because sentences within the guidelines are presumptively reasonable and because the sentencing judge named numerous reasons for its upward departure, the Court held that a 30-year sentence was not an abuse of discretion, despite sentencing disparities.

The full opinion is available here.

Phaknikone: Eleventh Circuit Holds Myspace Profile Photographs Inadmissible Character Evidence, but Harmless Error

May 11, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Phaknikone.jpg

Yesterday, the Eleventh Circuit, which hears appeals from federal cases here in Atlanta, held in U.S. v. Phaknikone that profile photographs from the criminal defendant’s Myspace account were inadmissible evidence of character. The government argued that the photos demonstrated modus operandi: the defendant’s gangsta style as shown in the photographs identified the defendant because he robbed banks “like a gangster.” The Court saw through the argument, but held that admitting the photos was harmless error, due to the “overwhelming” evidence of Phaknikone’s guilt.

The relevant photograph in this case showed Phaknikone in the driver’s seat of a car. A tattoo is visible on his neck, as well as a large tattoo on his left arm, and he is holding a handgun in his right hand. A passenger is handing something to a child in the back seat of the car. The Court held that this photograph “proves only that Phaknikone, on an earlier occasion, possessed a handgun in the presence of a child. Although the photograph may portray a ‘gangster-type personality,’ the photograph does not evidence the modus operandi of a bank robber who commits his crimes with a signature trait.”

Phaknikone was convicted on fifteen counts stemming from seven bank robberies in late 2006 and early 2007 in Northeast Georgia. He was captured fleeing one robbery and confessed to three more. Evidence regarding clothing and shoes worn by the robbers, eyewitness accounts of his tattoos, and behavior during the robberies was introduced by the government, as well. The Court held that the evidence was overwhelming, viewed in its totality, so the admission of the photographs was harmless error.

The Court’s opinion is available here.

View larger version of image here.