Supreme Court Rules the Dead Can Speak at Trial
On February 28, 2011, the Supreme Court ruled on a Michigan case involving statements made to the police by the victim in Michigan v. Bryant. In a decision that appears to go against existing legal precedent, Justice Sotomayor writing on behalf of the Court held that the statements of the victim to the police were admissible at trial because the primary purpose of those statements were made to address an ongoing emergency.
To understand this decision, you need a little background. The United States Constitution grants each criminal defendant the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him. This is designed to protect the defendant against statements made to the police or other government officials when he or she has not had the opportunity to cross-examine or question the validity of those statements. However, for many years it had been common practice to allow these statements to be admitted at trial as long as they fell within one of the commonly accepted hearsay exceptions including statements made in contemplation of death. The theory was that the circumstances in exceptions were inherently more credible because a person was less likely to lie if, for example, he or she believed he was about to die.
In 2004, in a case called Crawford v. Washington, the Supreme Court reigned in on this liberal use of hearsay exceptions to avoid requiring witnesses to confront the defendant. In that case the Court ruled that, even if a hearsay exception applied, a witness must be required to confront the defendant unless he or she was legally unavailable and the defendant had had a previous opportunity to cross examine the witness. If not, then any statement that was testimonial in nature would be inadmissible at trial. Testimonial was not expressly defined, but included police interrogations.
Two years later the Supreme Court addressed the issue of when a statement is testimonial in Davis v. Washington and Hammon v. Indiana. Essentially, the Court carved out an exception that statements made to police are not testimonial if the primary purpose for the statements was to resolve a present emergency. The Court in Davis distinguished between recounting events that were currently happening, and describing past events.
It was in light of this history of cases that the Court made its ruling in Michigan v. Bryant. The police in the case found the victim shot and bleeding in the parking lot of gas station. The victim reported that he had been shot by the defendant through the back door of the defendant home, and that he had driven himself to the parking lot. The emergency medical services arrived within approximately 10 minutes and transported the victim to the hospital where he died within hours. Despite the fact that the shooting had occurred 25 minutes earlier in another location some unknown distance away from where the victim was found, the Supreme Court ruled that there was an ongoing emergency and that the primary purpose of the questions and answers were to address the ongoing emergency. To justify its departure from Davis and Hammon, the court noted that here there was a gun involved, which the court seemed to imply created an inherent risk to the public. The Court also relied on the “informal” and at times disorganized nature of the police questioning as evidence of an “ongoing emergency.” Also, the Court stated that nothing the victim had said would lead the police to think that this was a private conflict or that the emergency had ended. Thus rather than having to demonstrate that the emergency still existed, all that the police, and by extension the prosecutor, had to demonstrate was that the possibility of a threat to the public had not been eliminated.
The effect of this case is that the ongoing emergency exception to what is testimonial requiring witnesses confront the defendant in a criminal trial has been greatly broadened. Rather than the common understanding of an emergency, which would require some apparent and readily present threat, the Court has created an assumption that, at least where a gun is involved, an ongoing emergency exists until the police can locate the suspect or believe that he is unarmed or otherwise unlikely to be a risk to the public. Future criminal defendants and their lawyers will need to be aware of this definition of an ongoing emergency and future appeals will have to define exactly how long such an emergency might last when, as here, there is no apparent threat when the police arrive on the scene.
Read the opinion here.
* Please note: Every case is different, and there may be some aspect of your particular case which may result in an outcome other than is described above. This post is not intended as legal advice and may not apply to your particular case. It is always best to contact our office for a consultation if you have been or believe you may be charged with a crime.