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Defendant Can Cross-Examine Forensic Experts, Supreme Court Rules

Publication Date: 
June 26, 2009
Los Angeles Times
David G. Savage

Professor Jeffrey L. Fisher is quoted in the Los Angeles Times about the Supreme Court ruling that forensic evidence in a crime report must be backed up by testimony in court. David Savage filed this story:

The Supreme Court announced Thursday a potentially significant change in how crime lab reports are used in trials, ruling that a defendant has the right to cross-examine in front of the jury the experts who prepared these reports.

Crime labs have been subjected to criticism in the last decade, much of it because of DNA evidence that has shown at least 240 prisoners were in fact not guilty. In many instances, they were convicted based on faulty tests involving hair samples, clothing fibers, blood or ballistics from guns.

Often, these crime lab reports were simply introduced as evidence. They were assumed to be accurate.

In Thursday's opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said technicians who prepared these reports acted as "witnesses" for the prosecution. And under the 6th Amendment, the accused has the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

Scalia wrote for a 5-4 majority that reversed the conviction of a Massachusetts man found guilty of selling cocaine.


In Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachusetts, the high court reversed his conviction on the grounds that his right to confront his accuser had been violated.


Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher, who represented the defendant, said the ruling has national significance. "It means the prosecution must be ready to present forensic evidence through live testimony if the defendant requests it," he said.