Academic journal article Suffolk University Law Review

Williams Plurality Relies on Inherently Unreliable Forensic Evidence: Confrontation Clause Analyses across the Nation in Disarray

Academic journal article Suffolk University Law Review

Williams Plurality Relies on Inherently Unreliable Forensic Evidence: Confrontation Clause Analyses across the Nation in Disarray

Article excerpt

"[T]hat's the crux of this evidence, and you're telling me that this Confrontation Clause allows you to simply say, well, we 're not going to bring in the person who did the test; we are simply going to say, this is a reliable lab. I don't know how that complies with the Confrontation Clause." (1)


In a widely fractured decision, the Supreme Court held that a defendant's constitutional right to confrontation was not violated when an expert provided testimony concerning a DNA profile linking the defendant to his accused crime. (2) In Williams v. Illinois, (3) the Court articulated three different reasons as to why the expert testimony, in the absence of testimony from the primary analyst, did not violate the Confrontation Clause. (4) The plurality decision in Williams produced significant inconsistencies among courts analyzing the issue of expert testimony and defendants' right to confront their accusers. (5)

While the Court deemed its holding consistent with precedent, it was arguably a successful attempt to limit defendants' confrontation rights under established law. (6) Before Williams, the Court definitively acknowledged the Confrontation Clause's importance under the Sixth Amendment. (7) Now, with regard to forensic evidence, state courts are left with the opportunity to decide whether a certain situation violates a defendant's confrontation rights under Williams and other prior Supreme Court precedent. (8)

Remarkably, the Williams plurality understood that it would "also decide whether Crawford substantially impedes the ability of prosecutors to introduce DNA evidence and thus may effectively relegate the prosecution in some cases to rel[y] on older, less reliable forms of proof." (9) The plurality, in deeming forensic crime labs inherently reliable, went against prior Court opinions, thus affording greater weight to the prosecution than defendants' rights under the Confrontation Clause. (10) The Williams dissent noted that abandoning cross-examining experts because their testimony is inherently trustworthy is akin to abandoning jury trials because of defendants' undeniable guilt. (11) In light of forensic evidence's unreliability, surrogate testimony relating to DNA evidence should face more, not less, scrutiny from courts. (12)

This Note will begin by explaining defendants' right to confrontation and discussing the evolution of the Confrontation Clause through Crawford, Williams, and other seminal cases. (13) The Note will then discuss the lack of uniformity in Confrontation Clause analyses across the country due to the fractured Williams decision. (14) Next, it will examine the unreliability of crime labs and forensic evidence by illustrating crime lab scandals occurring in multiple states. (15) The analysis argues that states should reject the Williams notion of inherent DNA testing reliability, and provide defendants with better protection by requiring the primary analyst to testify to satisfy the Confrontation Clause. (16)


A. Right to Confrontation

The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment demands that criminal defendants have the right to confront their accusers. (17) Unless a witness is unavailable and there was a prior opportunity for cross-examination, the defendant must be able to confront the witness whose statements qualify as testimonial. (18) The confrontation right's historical origins, and the requirement that the prosecution demonstrates a witness's unavailability, stem from the infamous trial of Sir Walter Raleigh. (19) The right of confrontation is critical for assessing the reliability of evidence against the accused. (20) Confrontation is also fundamental in exposing errors in testimony and ensuring a fair trial. (21) The Confrontation Clause is only implicated when a court deems an out-of-court statement "testimonial." (22)

B. Crawford and the Confrontation Clause Trilogy

In 2004, the Supreme Court abrogated Ohio v. …

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