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Supreme Court Ruling Shakes Up Criminal Trials

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

Professor Jeffrey Fisher, co-director of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, talked to the LA Times about the implications of the Court's 5-4 ruling in sixth amendment clinic case, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, which clarifies the defendant's right to confront witnesses in criminal proceedings:

Reporting from Washington — Until last month, the strongest evidence in drug and drunk driving cases in courtrooms across the nation often was a piece of paper. A crime lab or Breathalyzer report would confirm that the defendant indeed had illegal drugs or a high level of alcohol in his or her system.

But a Supreme Court decision has sent a jolt through that procedure.

Now the prosecution must make a lab technician available to testify in person if the defendant demands it. As a result, some cases already have been dismissed. One state, Virginia, has called a special legislative session to change its laws. And some lawyers think the ruling will continue to have a major effect.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court said that lab reports served as “witnesses” for the prosecution. And because the 6th Amendment gives defendants a right to "be confronted with the witnesses against him," Justice Antonin Scalia said that drug defendants and others were "entitled to be confronted with the [lab] analysts at trial."


Stanford law professor Jeffrey L. Fisher, who won the case before the high court, said states such as California routinely bring crime experts to trials. Other states require prosecutors and defense lawyers to agree in advance what kinds of evidence will be submitted. "It may take a little while, but people will figure this out," Fisher said.