Supreme Court Establishes New Federal Rule Regarding Criminal Forensic Lab Reports

A couple of weeks ago, the federal Supreme Court decided a criminal case, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, holding that the admission of crime lab reports requires the forensic analysts to testify in person. The Georgia Supreme Court adopted the same rule in 1996 for state criminal cases brought here in Georgia and we are pleased that it will now apply in federal criminal cases, as well as in other states that didn’t previously have the rule.

Justice Scalia, a strong defender of the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause, wrote the majority opinion in Melendez-Diaz. The basic idea of the Confrontation Clause is that people have the right to be confronted with witnesses against them so they have a chance to defend themselves against the charges. In Crawford v. Washington, the Court held that testimonial statements against a defendant are inadmissible unless the witness appears at trial or, if the witness is unavailable, the defendant has had a prior opportunity for cross-examination. In this case, Scalia explained that the crime lab reports were affidavits, which fall within the “core class of testimonial statements” covered by the Confrontation Clause and addressed in Crawford. For that reason, the analysts making the statements must appear at trial.

The dissent argued that forensic evidence is uniquely reliable compared to other types of testimony and that cross-examination of the analysts would be empty formalism. To most people who watch TV shows like CSI, this argument has merit – scientific evidence seems indisputable. But not all forensic analysts are as intelligent and well-educated as Gil Grissom. The Court noted that “[s]erious deficiencies have been found in the forensic evidence used in criminal trials… One study of cases in which exonerating evidence resulted in the overturning of criminal convictions concluded that invalid forensic testimony contributed to the convictions in 60% of the cases.” Confrontation will help assure accurate forensic analysis by weeding out both fraudulent and incompetent analysts.

The opinion in Melendez-Diaz is available here.

Last Monday, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in a related case, Briscoe v. Virginia. We will follow that case and update on it when it is decided. More information on that case can be found at the Confrontation Blog.