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The right to confrontation is a trial right, designed to prevent improper restrictions on the types of questions that defense counsel may ask during cross-examination. It is this literal right to confront the witness at the time of trial that forms the core of the values furthered by the confrontation clause. The ability to question adverse witnesses, however, does not include the power to require the pretrial disclosure of any and all information that might be useful in contradicting unfavorable testimony. Normally the right to confront one's accusers is satisfied if defense counsel receives wide latitude at trial to question witnesses. In short, the confrontation clause only guarantees an opportunity for effective cross-examination, not cross-examination that is effective in whatever way, and to whatever extent, the defense might wish.
Defendant was convicted of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, incest, and corruption of a minor, as a result of assaults on his minor daughter. During pretrial, defendant attempted to obtain the contents of the file that the Children and Youth Services (CYS) made in its investigation of the victim's complaint, but was denied access, since those files were confidential under Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 11, § 2215(a) (1986). Defendant was subsequently convicted before the Court of Common Pleas, but the Superior Court of Pennsylvania vacated the conviction and remanded for further proceedings, holding (1) that the withholding of the records violated the defendant's rights under the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment; (2) that the Court of Common Pleas on remand must examine the records in chambers, release any verbatim statements by the daughter, and then make the full record available to defense counsel for the limited purpose of arguing the relevance of the statements; and (3) that a new trial should be ordered unless the error was found to be harmless. Petitioner, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, obtained a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Did the defendant have the right to be allowed access to the confidential information in question?
Yes, but only if the information were material as determined by the trial court.
The state supreme court vacated the conviction, remanded the case, and ordered the court to allow defendant's attorney full access to the files. On appeal, the court held that U.S. Const. amend. VI granted defendant the right to confront his witnesses at trial. Defendant was entitled to pretrial disclosure of confidential information only if that information were material as determined by the trial court, but his attorney did not have the right to examine the CYS file. Thus, the court affirmed that part of the judgment of the state supreme court and remanded the case for the court to determine if the CYS file contained material, exculpatory evidence, which would warrant a new trial, but reversed the remaining part of the judgment.