In a nearly unanimous decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that judges cannot create “exceptions” to the United States Constitution.
“As the Supreme Court has recognized, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses is one of the bedrock constitutional protections afforded to criminal defendants,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of “Battlefield America: The War on the American People.”
“At its core, the Sixth Amendment acts as a restraint on the government’s power to unfairly punish citizens in criminal cases, putting safeguards in place to prevent the accused from being indiscriminately stripped of their life and liberty.”
Rutherford, along with several other civil rights organizations, had filed a friend of the court brief in Hemphill v. New York, explaining that judge-created exceptions to the Sixth Amendment aren’t allowed.
The 8-1 high court decision said the “Confrontation Clause requires that the reliability and veracity of the evidence against a criminal defendant be tested by cross-examination, not determined by a trial court.”
The Sixth Amendment provides that when people are accused of a crime, they are told what they’re charged with and be given a fair, speedy and public trial.
They also must have an impartial jury, a lawyer, and, significantly in this case, a chance to confront and question their accusers.
There realistically have been only two exceptions to that last protection, wrongdoing, or a case where a defendant tries to prevent a witness from testifying, and dying declarations.
But in Hemphill v. New York, the trial court claimed that an accused’s defense in a murder trial had “opened the door” to allow the prosecution to present past statements from another person which undermined that defense without giving the accused the benefit of cross-examination.
The fight arose in 2006, when a two-year-old boy in a car was killed by a stray 9 mm bullet from a Bronx street fight involving Nicholas Morris, Ronnel Gilliam and Darrell Hemphill.
Police found a 9 mm cartridge and some .357-caliber bullets in Morris’ home and he was arrested for murder. Then Gilliam told police that Morris was the gunman, but later changed his story and said Hemphill was the shooter.
Morris agreed to a plea bargain that dropped the murder charge, but then years later police obtained DNA evidence suggesting Hemphill was the gunman, and he was charged.
Hemphill claimed Morris was the shooter, but prosecutors’ evidence included statements Morris made earlier claiming that he possessed only a .357, not a 9 mm.
Hemphill was convicted, but without having an opportunity to cross-examine Morris, so the court’s ruling reversed that decision.