In the recent Williams v. Illinois case, the US Supreme Court cut back against the line of cases that gave criminal defendants broad confrontation clause rights against expert testimony. The Court held that criminal defendants have no right to cross examine experts giving certain forms of affidavits. That ruling has the potential to make it much harder to defend against any criminal charge where expert testimony is relevant: anything from rape to DUI.
In the Williams case, the prosecution produced, and the trial court partially admitted, expert witness testimony detailing the forensics testing on a rape victim. While the confrontation clause usually requires a criminal defendant be able to cross examine witnesses testifying against them, it has been unclear for some time to what extent expert testimony is affected. Expert testimony that relies other expert statements is not inadmissible as hearsay, but it has traditionally been inadmissible under the confrontation clause.
The practical problem is that experts will always have to rely on the statements of other experts in formulating their own expert opinions.
The constitutional problem is that criminal defendants have traditionally had, and probably should have, the right to haul their accusers in front of a jury, to allow the jury to assess their credibility.
The plurality opinion of the court, delivered by Justice Alito, basically ignores the constitutional problem on the basis that experts do not ordinarily conduct witch hunts. He reasons that lab experts are just doing their jobs and are not concerned as the police or other witnesses might be in seeing a criminal defendant convicted.
Given this ruling, let’s hope he’s right.
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