Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Court Opinions: Melendez-Diaz Oral Arguments and the Need to Confront Forensic Scientists on the Stand

You've seen CSI.

Yes, you have -- whether you've watched Gil Grissom in the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, or Horatio Caine in CSI - Miami or Mac Taylor in CSI:NY (which I can never take too seriously, because everytime I see that guy's face, I hear "Lt. Dannnnnn" in Forrest Gump's drawl).

Well, in whatever version of CSI you're talking about, these guys are busy being lab rats one minute, and cops with guns the next. Maybe Miami does it more than Vegas, but it rings true for all three.

Forensic Scientist - Cops

As well it should -- in real life, the forensic science pros in law enforcement think of themselves just as much as police officers as they do science gurus. They just don't have the same cool lighting effects in the labs or the same tight low-cut shirts as their TV counterparts.

Confronting the Forensic Reports Is A Big Defense Problem

Which has been a big problem in the courtroom, because there has been a big brouhaha over whether or not criminal defense attorneys have the right to confront these forensic guys (and gals) over their reports and such -- on the witness stand, in front of the jury.

After all, a criminal defendant has the right to confront his (or her) accusers under the U.S. Constitution. Why can't they confront these science folk on the neutrality and objectivity of their lab findings?

Prosecutors, of course, want to introduce forensic reports as if they are the Holy Grail, never to be questioned by anyone -- after all, science is science right? District attorneys argue that criminal defense attorneys are just trying to manipulate things when they want to bring the forensic scientist into the courtroom: the lab results say what they say, they give routine results, and having some white-coat witness take the stand is just an attorney playing games.

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, believe that not only are these forensic professionals merely human, and therefore subject to making mistakes, but these pros see themselves as law enforcement -- and are far from impartial in their work. They're not independent third parties from some faraway laboratory, wearing monocles and speaking with a slight European accent.

Things May Be Changing: the pending case of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts

The US Supreme Court has just heard oral arguments in the case of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts. Looks like they'll be deciding really soon whether or not forensic experts should be subject to confrontation by the defense.

What does this mean to you and me?

Seems that the High Court is considering the possibility that a forensic expert who has a paycheck signed by the same kahunas that sign the beat cop's paycheck might have a bias or be subject to err on the side of the prosecution. And if that's true, then the defense attorney should be able to cross-examine that forensic expert on the witness stand. That's the right thing to do.

Looks like the Supremes watch a bit of CSI, too, doesn't it?


New York Times

Brief for Petitioner:

Brief for Respondent:

For more discussion on Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, check out:

Grits for Breakfast


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