The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in a case that could have great impact because of prosecutors’ widespread reliance on forensic evidence, reports USA Today. The justices appeared open to ruling that lab workers must be available for cross-examination when states introduce drug, blood, or other forensic reports at trial. “Introducing forensic laboratory reports (without live witnesses) is the modern equivalent of trial by affidavit,” said Stanford University law professor Jeffrey Fisher, representing Luis Melendez-Diaz, who was convicted of cocaine trafficking. Fisher challenged a Massachusetts policy, similar to others nationwide, that allows forensic analysts to submit certificates without testifying.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said forcing lab workers to testify would be costly. “Misdemeanor drug prosecutions would essentially grind to a halt,” she said. The question is whether lab reports are considered “testimonial,” rather than objective public records. If they are testimonial, they would be subject to the Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses. In recent years, the court has more broadly interpreted the right to confront witnesses. Justice Antonin Scalia, who was sympathetic to Melendez-Diaz’s claim, has taken the lead in making it harder for witness statements to be introduced without testimony. Thirty-five states side with Massachusetts. One group backing Melendez-Diaz, the National Innocence Network, says forensic evidence is wrongly assumed to be infallible. The group asserts that in most of the exonerations it has obtained, forensic errors, such as blood type testing, played a key role in conviction.