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


Monday, November 10, 2008

DA Watch: Judge Dismisses Felony Corruption Charges Against DA Juan Angel Guerra

You gotta wonder.

Once Upon A Time, Juan Angel Guerra Was Just Planning a Re-Election Campaign ...

Almost two years ago, Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra was planning his re-election campaign, after serving his region in South Texas for three straight terms. Guerra was gearing up for a run to serve another term in office - he would be voted the top prosecutor of the area for the fourth straight election.

Next, DA Guerra was Indicted on Three Separate Felony Indictments ....

Then, about 18 months ago, Guerra was indicted for allegedly doing some very bad things. In fact, there were three separate indictments:

First, it was alleged that DA Guerra commited theft when he demanded that a bail bonds company fork over $10,000 or he'd put them out of business.

Second, the DA was indicted for allegedly tampering with government records, perjury, or abuse of office because Guerra purportedly lied under oath when he claimed the bail bonds company was over its limit.

Third, Guerra was indicted for allegedly stealing over $200,000 in public funds by using county equipment and personnel for his own personal use.

Then, The Special Prosecutor Is Held to Be Improperly Appointed ....

Gus Garza was the man appointed to be Special Prosecutor of the Guerra case. DA Guerra challenged Garza's appointment, and in May 2008, the 13th Court of Appeals agreed with Guerra -- Gus Garza was improperly appointed to serve in this role. Ron Barroso replaced Garza.

And, State District Judge Manuel Banales Dismisses All Three Indictments.

In October 2008, the new Special Prosecutor Ron Barroso files a motion that the indictments against DA Guerra be dismissed, and Judge Banales grants the motion.

Why? Ron Barroso found NO EVIDENCE to support the three felony corruption charges that had been leveled against DA Juan Angel Guerra.

That's right: NO EVIDENCE.

But This is Only After Guerra's Lost the March Primary and His Re-Election Bid.

So, DA Guerra should be very happy, right? Well, no.

Seems that DA Juan Angel Guerra was beaten in the March 2008 Primary, when all this felony indictment stuff was being thrown around in the media -- and after serving three terms in office, this experienced prosecutor was beaten even before the November election day.

His reputation will forever be tainted, too - because lots of people are just going to remember that he was accused of being a thief and misusing his office, and they'll assume where there is smoke there is fire ... regardless of the fact that he's been cleared of any wrongdoing here.

Did Politics Go So Far As To Indict An Incumbent to Drive Him Out of Office?

Some might wonder if there were some closed-door shenanigans here. And, they would include Juan Angel Guerra - who has been quoted by the media as stating he believes the indictments came down to keep him from being re-elected.

Well, Juan Angel -- it kinda looks that way, doesn't it?


By the way, on those three charges: Juan Angel had explained that he was using the $200,000 in county equipment and personnel as part of his job to offer free legal services to those in need; and he had legitimately demanded $10,000 from the bail bonding company to pay lawsuit judgments filed against the company, because it couldn't cover its bonds after the criminal defendants failed to show.


Associated Press