Supreme Court puts limits on right of confrontation

  • Article by: DAVID G. SAVAGE , Tribune Washington Bureau
  • Updated: June 18, 2012 - 7:46 PM

Crime lab analyst who processed evidence in rape case need not testify in person, split court ruled.

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court retreated Monday from its view that a criminal defendant's right to confront his accusers includes trial testimony from the crime lab analyst who identified him as the culprit.

By a splintered 5-4 vote, the justices upheld the conviction of a Chicago rapist who was found guilty based on a DNA match done by a crime lab in Maryland.

The decision in Williams vs. Illinois is a victory, albeit a tentative one, for prosecutors and state lawyers. They had worried that the high court was on the verge of giving defendants a right to demand testimony from all crime lab technicians whose reports were used against them. They said this would put a costly burden on local and state governments and take technicians and analysts away from their crime labs.

Sandy Williams, the Chicago man, was convicted after an Illinois crime lab analyst testified she had matched a sample of his blood with a DNA profile done on a semen sample taken from the victim. The DNA work was done at a Cellmark lab in Maryland, and the expert who did the profile did not testify.

The Sixth Amendment gives defendants a right to be confronted with the witnesses against them, and in recent years, the high court had said that reports from crime labs serve as crucial evidence for the prosecution. In these cases, the lab analysts must be ready to testify, the court had said. But in Monday's decision, the court backed away somewhat, saying this rule does not extend to all analysts.

Justice Samuel Alito Jr. said the testimony of the Illinois crime lab analyst was sufficient. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer agreed, and Justice Clarence Thomas concurred separately. Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative, joined a dissent written by Justice Elena Kagan and two of her liberal colleagues, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

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