Coakley: Forensics testimony a burden

ON THE SIXTH AMENDMENT Requiring forensic scientists to testify at criminal trials would burden Massachusetts' system, AG Martha Coakley said. ON THE SIXTH AMENDMENT Requiring forensic scientists to testify at criminal trials would burden Massachusetts' system, AG Martha Coakley said.
By Jenny Paul
Globe Correspondent / November 11, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley told the Supreme Court yesterday that requiring forensic scientists to testify at criminal trials where their reports are presented as evidence would place an undue burden on the state's already-backlogged drug testing system.

Misdemeanor drug prosecutions in Massachusetts "would grind to a halt," said Coakley, who was arguing before the Supreme Court for the first time.

The case centers on whether a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him applies to the admission of drug analysis certificates as evidence at criminal trials. If it does, the analysts who prepare the reports could be required to provide live testimony in court.

The case involves Luis Melendez-Diaz, who was convicted in 2004 of trafficking cocaine and sentenced to three years in prison. Boston police arrested Melendez-Diaz in 2001 and seized bags filled with powdery substances, later determined to be cocaine by chemists at the state Department of Public Health's drug analysis laboratory. The drug analysis certificates were presented as evidence at Melendez-Diaz's trial, but the analysts who prepared the reports did not testify. He is now appealing the verdict to the Supreme Court.

The justices acknowledged that their decision could have far-reaching effects on the backlog and workload at crime labs nationally.

"This is a very, very substantial burden" if the court rules that states must have analysts testify at trials, Justice Anthony Kennedy said.

Requiring chemists to testify at trials would "dramatically" increase the backlog at Massachusetts' laboratories, said Emily LaGrassa, a spokeswoman in the attorney general's office. The office could not provide a more specific estimate. The Department of Public Health employs 15 chemists to analyze substances and has a 600-case backlog, LaGrassa said.

The justices pointed to California's system, in which drug analysis certificates can be admitted as evidence only if the analyst who prepares the report testifies, or if the defense stipulates that the reports can be admitted without testimony. When asked why Massachusetts couldn't function under a similar system, Coakley said she was not familiar enough with the California system.

Jeffrey Fisher, a Stanford Law School professor arguing for Melendez-Diaz, said requiring analysts to testify would allow defendants to question them about the methods used to test the substance, the accuracy rate of the test, and the credentials of the lab employees who perform the tests, Fisher said.

Coakley argued that the drug analysis certificates are nontestimonial - and therefore not governed by the Sixth Amendment clause in question - because they do not accuse anyone of anything criminal on their own. "It's really a report of a scientific test," she said.

The certificates can incriminate a defendant, Coakley argued in the state's brief, only when a witness, such as a police officer, testifies about facts and circumstances that link the substance tested in the lab to the defendant.

Fisher argued that the reports are testimonial because analysts must interpret the results of the scientific test performed and because the reports are prepared specifically to prosecute cases.

Coakley argued that even if the court deems drug analysis certificates to be testimonial the state provides alternative methods that should satisfy the constitutional requirement. She said Melendez-Diaz had opportunities before the trial began to question the validity of the drug test results.

He could have petitioned the state for money to hire an independent specialist to test the substance or subpoenaed the chemist as part of his defense at trial, she argued.

But Fisher argued that prosecutors, not defendants, must bring witnesses who are against the defense to court. He said the state could also enact a notice-and-demand statute, requiring the defense to make an advance demand that the prosecution call as a witness the analyst who prepared the report.

Requiring forensic scientists to testify at criminal trials would burden Massachusetts' system, AG Martha Coakley said.


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