LAWS PAGES

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U.S. Supreme Court
MICHAEL D. CRAWFORD, PETITIONER v. WASHINGTON (2004)

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    1. Roberts’ failings were on full display in the proceedings below. Sylvia Crawford made her statement while in police custody, herself a potential suspect in the case. Indeed, she had been told that whether she would be released “depend[ed] on how the investigation continues.” App. 81. In response to often leading questions from police detectives, she implicated her husband in Lee’s stabbing and at least arguably undermined his self-defense claim. Despite all this, the trial court admitted her statement, listing several reasons why it was reliable. In its opinion reversing, the Court of Appeals listed several other reasons why the statement was not reliable. Finally, the State Supreme Court relied exclusively on the interlocking character of the statement and disregarded every other factor the lower courts had considered. The case is thus a self-contained demonstration of Roberts’ unpredictable and inconsistent application.

      Each of the courts also made assumptions that cross-examination might well have undermined. The trial court, for example, stated that Sylvia Crawford’s statement was reliable because she was an eyewitness with direct knowledge of the events. But Sylvia at one point told the police that she had “shut [her] eyes and … didn’t really watch” part of the fight, and that she was “in shock.” App. 134. The trial court also buttressed its reliability finding by claiming that Sylvia was “being questioned by law enforcement, and, thus, the [questioner] is … neutral to her and not someone who would be inclined to advance her interests and shade her version of the truth unfavorably toward the defendant.” Id., at 77. The Framers would be astounded to learn that ex parte testimony could be admitted against a criminal defendant because it was elicited by “neutral” government officers. But even if the court’s assessment of the officer’s motives was accurate, it says nothing about Sylvia’s perception of her situation. Only cross-examination could reveal that.

      The State Supreme Court gave dispositive weight to the interlocking nature of the two statements–that they were both ambiguous as to when and whether Lee had a weapon. The court’s claim that the two statements were equally ambiguous is hard to accept. Petitioner’s statement is ambiguous only in the sense that he had lingering doubts about his recollection: “A. I coulda swore I seen him goin’ for somethin’ before, right before everything happened… . [B]ut I’m not positive.” Id., at 155. Sylvia’s statement, on the other hand, is truly inscrutable, since the key timing detail was simply assumed in the leading question she was asked: “Q. Did Kenny do anything to fight back from this assault?” Id., at 137. Moreover, Sylvia specifically said Lee had nothing in his hands after he was stabbed, while petitioner was not asked about that.

      The prosecutor obviously did not share the court’s view that Sylvia’s statement was ambiguous–he called it “damning evidence” that “completely refutes [petitioner’s] claim of self-defense.” Tr. 468 (Oct. 21, 1999). We have no way of knowing whether the jury agreed with the prosecutor or the court. Far from obviating the need for cross-examination, the “interlocking” ambiguity of the two statements made it all the more imperative that they be tested to tease out the truth.

      We readily concede that we could resolve this case by simply reweighing the “reliability factors” under Roberts and finding that Sylvia Crawford’s statement falls short. But we view this as one of those rare cases in which the result below is so improbable that it reveals a fundamental failure on our part to interpret the Constitution in a way that secures its intended constraint on judicial discretion. Moreover, to reverse the Washington Supreme Court’s decision after conducting our own reliability analysis would perpetuate, not avoid, what the Sixth Amendment condemns. The Constitution prescribes a procedure for determining the reliability of testimony in criminal trials, and we, no less than the state courts, lack authority to replace it with one of our own devising.

      We have no doubt that the courts below were acting in utmost good faith when they found reliability. The Framers, however, would not have been content to indulge this assumption. They knew that judges, like other government officers, could not always be trusted to safeguard the rights of the people; the likes of the dread Lord Jeffreys were not yet too distant a memory. They were loath to leave too much discretion in judicial hands. Cf. U.S. Const., Amdt. 6 (criminal jury trial); Amdt. 7 (civil jury trial); Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 611—612 (2002) (Scalia, J., concurring). By replacing categorical constitutional guarantees with open-ended balancing tests, we do violence to their design. Vague standards are manipulable, and, while that might be a small concern in run-of-the-mill assault prosecutions like this one, the Framers had an eye toward politically charged cases like Raleigh’s–great state trials where the impartiality of even those at the highest levels of the judiciary might not be so clear. It is difficult to imagine Roberts’ providing any meaningful protection in those circumstances.

      Where nontestimonial hearsay is at issue, it is wholly consistent with the Framers’ design to afford the States flexibility in their development of hearsay law–as does Roberts, and as would an approach that exempted such statements from Confrontation Clause scrutiny altogether. Where testimonial evidence is at issue, however, the Sixth Amendment demands what the common law required: unavailability and a prior opportunity for cross-examination. We leave for another day any effort to spell out a comprehensive definition of “testimonial.”[fn10] Whatever else the term covers, it applies at a minimum to prior testimony at a preliminary hearing, before a grand jury, or at a former trial; and to police interrogations. These are the modern practices with closest kinship to the abuses at which the Confrontation Clause was directed.

      In this case, the State admitted Sylvia’s testimonial statement against petitioner, despite the fact that he had no opportunity to cross-examine her. That alone is sufficient to make out a violation of the Sixth Amendment. Roberts notwithstanding, we decline to mine the record in search of indicia of reliability. Where testimonial statements are at issue, the only indicium of reliability sufficient to satisfy constitutional demands is the one the Constitution actually prescribes: confrontation.

      The judgment of the Washington Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

 

It is so ordered.