High court strengthens defendant’s right to confront witnesses

On Behalf of | Jan 24, 2022 | Criminal Defense

Under the U.S. Constitution, criminal defendants have the right to confront or cross-examine witnesses in court under the Sixth Amendment. Such cross-examinations are meant to take place in person. If not, a violation of the constitutional rights exists.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court case brought this point to attention when it reversed a New York court ruling in a criminal case, declaring that the trial judge erred by allowing one-sided evidence. The case stemmed from a 2006 shooting that killed a 2-year-old boy died during an apparent street gunfight in the Bronx. The child was a passenger in a passing minivan when struck by a stray bullet.

Witness unavailable to appear in court

On Jan. 20, the high court ruled that a violation of defendant Darrell Hemphill’s constitutional rights occurred when a New York judge allowed jurors to read a witness testimony that prosecutors used to weaken the Hemphill’s defense. That witness who provided the testimony was unavailable to make a personal appearance in court, thus not providing Hemphill with the opportunity to cross-examine him.

In 2013, a jury convicted Hemphill of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. During his trial, Hemphill blamed the witness – Nicholas Morris — for the shooting the gun that killed the child.

‘Violated fundamental guarantee’

In the 8-1 decision, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: “The trial court’s admission of unconfronted testimonial hearsay over Hemphill’s objections, on the view that it was reasonably necessary to correct Hemphill’s misleading argument, violated that fundamental guarantee.”

As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, the case will be remanded to New York’s Court of Appeals, which will decide whether Hemphill would have been convicted without that the evidence of the witness’s testimony.

Hemphill’s attorneys contend that a reversal of the  conviction is necessary, and a new trial scheduled.