(CN) – Affidavits and other written statements used to convict a defendant violate the defendant’s right to confront opposing witnesses in court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday. Dissenting Justice Anthony Kennedy said the 5-4 opinion wiped out nearly a century of jurisprudence.
Boston police nabbed Luis Melendez-Diaz in a Kmart parking lot in drug bust. He was charged with distributing and trafficking between 14 and 28 grams of cocaine.
At trial, prosecutors submitted into evidence three “certificates of analysis” reporting what type of drug was seized and how much.
Melendez-Diaz objected to the use of the affidavits, claiming the Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford v. Washington required the laboratory analysts to testify in person.
The trial court allowed the written statements, and the jury found Melendez-Diaz guilty. He promptly appealed.
The Massachusetts Court of Appeals held that the analysts are not subject to confrontation under the Sixth Amendment, a decision the Supreme Court reversed.
Justice Scalia said the affidavits were testimonial statements, and the analysts were witnesses for Sixth Amendment purposes.
“Absent a showing that the analysts were unavailable to testify at trial and that petitioner had a prior opportunity to cross-examine them, petitioner was entitled to ‘be confronted with’ the analysts at trial,” Scalia wrote, quoting the Sixth Amendment.
Prosecutors argued that the analysts are not “accusatory” witnesses under the Constitution, because they do not directly accuse Melendez-Diaz of wrongdoing.
But the Constitution guarantees a defendant the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him,” Scalia wrote, emphasizing the last part of the phrase.
“To the extent the analysts were witnesses, they certainly provided testimony against petitioner, proving one fact necessary for his conviction – that the substance he possessed was cocaine.”
Justice Kennedy dissented, joined by Justices Alito and Breyer and Chief Justice Roberts.
“The Court sweeps away an accepted rule governing the admission of scientific evidence,” Thomas wrote, referring to the acceptance of scientific evidence without testimony from the analyst who produced it.
“This rule has been established for at least 90 years,” Kennedy wrote. “It is remarkable that the Court so confidently disregards a century of jurisprudence.”