Sunday, September 16, 2018

When motive is central

The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause as the principal means by which the believability of a witness and the truth of her testimony are tested.

A week ago the Seventh Circuit granted habeas to a state petitioner based on the erroneous confrontation-clause holdings of the State Court that were held contrary to and an unreasonable application of the clearly established right to cross-examine witnesses on issues central to the case.

In Rhodes v. Dittmann, the defendant had been convicted by a jury of first-degree intentional homicide. The prosecution's theory? Defendant shot and killed the victim (his sister’s then-boyfriend) to avenge the severe beating that his sister had sustained the day before, allegedly by the victim.

The prosecution emphasized the motive-theory throughout trial, and prominently featured it in the direct testimony of the sister by focusing heavily on her injuries from the beating the day before the shooting. But when defense counsel tried to cross-examine sister beyond that beating, the judge shut him down, siding with the state prosecutor that rebuttal evidence on prior incidents of domestic violence between the sister and her boyfriend (victim) would “confuse” the jury.

The Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court that the state courts’ errors were of Constitutional magnitude, but disagreed that they were harmless. In so finding, the Rhodes court reiterated that the Confrontation Clause cannot be satisfied merely by a finding that the evidence offered by the accused might be excluded properly under Rule 403; rather, courts must always give special consideration to the defendant’s constitutional right to confront witnesses against him. And effective cross-examination requires that the defense be permitted to expose specific facts from which jurors “could appropriately draw inferences relating to the reliability of the witness.” The Sixth Amendment "is not satisfied when the defendant is permitted to ask only general questions."

Here, “[i]t was the prosecution itself that wanted the jury to focus on motive.” In essence, then, “the trial court shut down the defense’s cross-examination to rebut the prosecution’s central theory.” Given the “importance of the motive issue,” the error could not be deemed harmless. 
grayscale photography of crowd of people 
Writ of habeas corpus granted.
 

And happy Constitution Day, all. As Thomas Edison cogently expressed, “[t]he strength of the Constitution, lies in the will of the people to defend it.” Carry on, and thank you.

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