The US Supreme Court Thursday reinforced the Sixth Amendment right of criminal defendants to cross-examine prosecution witnesses in an 8-1 decision.
The case, Hemphill v. New York, originated with the 2006 shooting death of a two-year-old in the Bronx. New York prosecutors originally charged Nicholas Morris with the murder, as the same caliber gun used in the shooting was discovered in Morris’s residence. Later on, however, prosecutors offered Morris a plea deal for a lesser gun possession charge. Prosecutors then charged Darrell Hemphill with murder for the same shooting.
For his defense, Hemphill argued Morris was responsible for the shooting. Morris was outside of the United States at the time of the trial and therefore unable to testify. Despite that, the trial judge allowed the prosecution to introduce testimony from a transcript of Morris’s plea allocution to rebut Hemphill’s argument. Hemphill objected, but the trial judge concluded that Hemphill had “opened the door” and the testimony was reasonably necessary. Hemphill was convicted of the murder.
Hemphill appealed to the Supreme Court. He argued the trial court’s decision to allow Morris’ testimony without the opportunity for cross-examination was a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.
The Supreme Court agreed. Writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor explained that the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment ensures the reliability of the evidence used against a criminal defendant is tested via cross-examination, not the trial judge. The trial judge therefore violated Hemphill’s right by deciding the evidence was reasonably necessary.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter.
Hemphill’s case now heads back to New York on remand, which means that Hemphill could still face conviction for the murder. In a statement to AP News, Hemphill’s attorney Jeffrey Fisher said: “[O]ur position is that Hemphill’s conviction must be reversed and he’s entitled to a new trial.”