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Supreme court upholds admissibility of lab tests in confrontation clause case

The US Supreme Court [official website] in a plurality opinion on Monday ruled [decision, PDF] that a defendant's rights under the Confrontation Clause were not violated when the state permited an expert witness to testify about the results of a DNA test performed at a private laboratory, where the analysts who performed the tests did not testify, and the expert witness did not have an opportunity to confront the actual analysts. The defendant in Williams v. Illinois [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] argued that without anyone from the lab present to testify about the DNA results, his rights were violated, especially since the lab tests themselves were not entered into evidence. In the splintered opinion, the court found that the witness, a DNA expert who had testified to what she saw on the lab results, was permitted to mention the lab tests even though she was not in a position to verify their contents. Justice Samuel Alito agreed with the prosecution that an expert witness "is allowed to disclose the facts on which the expert's opinion is based even if the expert is not competent to testify to those underlying facts." Alito was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer. Kennedy and Breyer also filed concurring opinions. Justice Elena Kagan dissented from the opinion, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in the case in December. In support of Illinois' position, the US government argued that there can be no Confrontation Clause issue, because the analyst who testified had to explain her lack of hands-on experience with the test. Although an analyst from the lab would make the state's case stronger, as the witness they presented does not have firsthand experience with the lab or its procedures, the Confrontation Clause does not obligate the state to present the strongest case possible. The court granted certiorari [JURIST report] in the case in June of last year.

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