US Supreme Court Opinion Crawford Ruling Bludgeoned In NJ Trio of Cases Michaels, Roach and Williams

In three cases the NJ Supreme Court has allowed the state to call a witness who ‘reviewed’ lab results and prepared reports in criminal cases such as a supervisor of the actual lab technician who did the work was an adequate witness to be called at the time of trial.  In  Michaels, Roach and Williams the court found no 6th Amendment confrontational problems when the actual lab tech was not called. Specifically the court stated,“We conclude that a defendant’s federal and state confrontation rights are satisfied so long as the testifying witness is qualified to perform, and did in fact perform, an independent review of testing data and processes, rather than merely read from or vouch for another analyst’s report or conclusions,”

A majority of the court said requiring every analyst who was involved in the testing to be available for questioning by the defense was not required by the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause and that doing so would create “practical drawbacks that range from moderate to severe.”  The court said it was acceptable for someone such as a laboratory supervisor who has reviewed the analysts’ findings to testify as to their reliability.  “We believe that a truly independent reviewer or supervisor of testing results can testify to those results and to his or her conclusions about those results, without violating a defendant’s confrontation rights,” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia said in State v. Michaels, one of three cases involving the issue released on the same day.

Expert Testimony and the Confrontation Clause

“Our evidence case law has focused on whether the witness is knowledgeable about the particular information used in forming the opinion to which he or she is testifying and has a means to verify the underlying information even if he or she was not the primary creator of the data,” LaVecchia said.  LaVecchia said while the court would normally rely on guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court, its rulings involving expert testimony and the confrontation clause have been mixed and offer no concrete guidance.

“We are pleased that the New Jersey Supreme Court approved of our longstanding practice of allowing experts to rely on scientific data produced by nontestifying analysts, so long as the testifying experts conduct their own independent analysis of the data in reaching their expert conclusions,” said Deputy Attorney General Frank Muroski, who argued on the state’s behalf in two of the cases.

The other cases decided Wednesday were State v. Roach and State v. Williams.

According to the opinion in Michaels, Julie Michaels is serving an 18-year sentence for causing a two-car accident March 3, 2008, in Hardyston Township, N.J., that killed one youth, 16-year-old Dylan Vecchiarelli, and injured the other driver, 20-year-old Danilo Diaz. She argued that her conviction should be overturned because she was not allowed to cross-examine the analyst who determined that she had cocaine and Xanax in her bloodstream.

According to the opinion in Roach, Reginald Roach is serving a 40-year sentence for the Nov. 5, 2005, rape and robbery of a 64-year-old North Brunswick, N.J., neighbor. He challenged his conviction on the grounds that he was not allowed to cross-examine the State Police forensic scientist who prepared a DNA report linking him to the crime.

In Williams, Bryden Williams is serving a 50-year sentence for the Sept. 3, 2006, murder of a Plainfield, N.J., man, Joel Whitley. He based his appeal on the grounds that he was not allowed to question the medical examiner who performed the autopsy.

“Today, the majority pronounces that the accused has no constitutional right to confront the scientist or analyst who actually performs the test,” Albin said. “Curtailing confrontation rights is not the answer to the uncertainty in federal jurisprudence. …The majority may be charting a course that will collide with the next United States Supreme Court case construing the confrontation clause.”

LaVecchia said the U.S. Supreme Court has, in recent years, ruled in three confrontation clause cases— Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts in 2009, as well as Bullcoming v. New Mexico and Williams v. Illinois, in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

In Melendez-Diaz and Bullcoming, the court said lab test results were testimonial and that the use of “surrogate” witnesses was improper. In Williams, however, the court said a DNA profile could be admitted even though the analyst who prepared it did not testify.

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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