John Castellano On Williams v. Illinois: Supreme Court to Decide Admissibility Under Confrontation Clause of Expert Testimony of DNA Results

In Williams v. Illinois, the Supreme Court is poised to consider a critical Confrontation Clause issue that may determine the admissibility of DNA test results in thousands of prosecutions across the country. In this commentary, John Castellano, a 28-year veteran of criminal practice, discusses the arguments before the Court and the potential legal and practical impact of the upcoming decision in this case.

DNA Model

He writes:

"On June 28, 2011, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Williams v. Illinois, __ U.S. __, 131 S. Ct. 3090 (2011), [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers / unenhanced version available from lexisONE Free Case Law], in which the Court will address for the first time whether a forensic expert may testify to DNA test results based, in part, on reports or data generated by other analysts without those analysts being called at trial. Because DNA testing ordinarily involves many different analysts and calling all of those analysts at trial is often highly impractical and sometimes impossible, a ruling declaring this kind of expert testimony inadmissible would significantly impede the ability of prosecutors to introduce DNA evidence at criminal trials. Such a ruling could also affect other forensic evidence where the original expert who performed the analysis can no longer be called, including, most notably, autopsy reports prepared by retired or otherwise unavailable medical examiners in homicide cases. Moreover, an adverse ruling would render Federal Rule of Evidence 703, which allows the introduction of expert testimony based on the otherwise inadmissible reports of others, unconstitutional as applied against criminal defendants. Discussed below are the Supreme Court's recent cases on the Confrontation Clause, the lower court's decision in Williams, the arguments proffered by both sides in the Supreme Court in Williams, and the potential impact of the decision in this case on criminal prosecutions nationwide.

"Ever since the Supreme Court revamped its Confrontation Clause jurisprudence in 2004, courts have faced serious questions concerning the admissibility of forensic evidence. Under the Court's Confrontation Clause analysis enunciated in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers / unenhanced version available from lexisONE Free Case Law], "testimonial" hearsay may not be admitted against a criminal defendant at trial unless the declarant is unavailable and the defendant previously had an opportunity to confront the witness. According to the Crawford Court, testimonial statements, as conceived by the framers, included prior unconfronted testimony, affidavits, and formal custodial confessions. But both the Supreme Court and lower courts have struggled with whether forensic evidence - largely unavailable at the time the Sixth Amendment was penned - also falls into the class of testimonial statements.

"In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, __ U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 2527 (2009), [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers / unenhanced version available from lexisONE Free Case Law], a bare majority of the Court held for the first time that a narcotics laboratory report may not be admitted into evidence in the place of live testimony, both because of its resemblance to an affidavit and because it was created with the purpose of constituting proof at trial. Justice Thomas, however, limited the basis of his concurrence to the first of these grounds, the formality of the document, thereby arguably limiting the scope of the Melendez-Diaz decision."

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