Supreme Court Holds Trial Court Erred in Child Killing Case
WASHINGTON — A New York trial court violated a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights when it allowed, over his objection, for the reading of a plea transcript of an unavailable witness to be admitted and read aloud in the courtroom.
The case before the court, Hemphill v. New York, stemmed from an April 2006 incident in which a stray 9 mm bullet killed a 2-year-old child after a street fight in the Bronx, a borough of New York City.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting death of David Pacheco Jr., police concluded an individual named Ronnell Gilliam had been involved and that a second individual, Nicholas Morris, had also been at the scene.
Gilliam initially identified Morris as the shooter, but later changed his story and said his cousin, Darrell Hemphill, had been the shooter.
In between these two events, a search of Morris’ apartment revealed a 9 mm cartridge and three .357-caliber bullets.
Despite the dramatic change in Gilliam’s story, prosecutors charged Morris with the child’s murder and posession of a 9 mm handgun.
Just before the case went to trial, however, the state struck a plea deal with Morris, promising to drop the murder charges against him if he pleaded guilty to a new charge of possession of a .357 revolver, a weapon that had not killed the victim.
The case languished. Then, prosecutors charged Hemphill after learning his DNA was on a blue sweater found in Morris’ apartment.
Hemphill pleaded not guilty and his lawyers argued Morris fired the deadly shot. For reasons not described in the ruling, Morris was unavailable to testify in Hemphill’s trial. As an alternative, prosecutors asked the trial court to admit Morris’ plea agreement to refute the defendant’s claims.
The court reasoned that although Morris’ out-of-court statements had not been subjected to cross-examination, Hemphill’s arguments and evidence had “opened the door” and admission of the statements was reasonably necessary to correct the misleading impression Hemphill had created.
The jury found Hemphill guilty and his conviction was upheld twice.
But on Thursday, in an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said those courts had all been wrong.
In an opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the majority said, “The confrontation clause requires that the reliability and veracity of the evidence against a criminal defendant be tested by cross-examination, not determined by a trial court. The trial court’s admission of unconfronted testimonial hearsay over Hemphill’s objection, on the view that it was reasonably necessary to correct Hemphill’s misleading argument, violated that fundamental guarantee.”
In other words, as she wrote in another section of the ruling, “One of the bedrock constitutional protections afforded to criminal defendants is the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment, which states: ‘In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him.’”
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, and he only did so on a narrow, technical ground, that Hemphill did not raise the abuse of his constitutional right to cross examination in his brief to the New York Court of Appeals.
Because he failed to do so, Thomas said, the U.S. Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to review the case.
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue