Feb 28, 2011

Michigan v. Bryant Breathes Life Into Dying Declarations

In Michigan v. Bryant (Feb. 2011), the US Supreme Court ruled that a type of hearsay known as a "dying delcaration" was admissible in evidence to prove a defendant guilty of murder. The big legal issue in the case was the application of the Confrontation Clause to a murder victim's last words. 

In Crawford v. Washington (2004), Justice Scalia began to erect his Monument to the Confrontation Clause.  He was the guiding robed hand that led a majority of the justices to agree that hearsay evidence was inadmissible against a defendant in a criminal trial unless the defendant had a chance to cross examine the person making the statement.  In later cases, the Court ruled that hearsay statements are admissible if they are made during "ongoing emergencies," but not if they are made after an emergency has passed and the police are investigating a prior crime.

In Michigan v. Bryant, Detroit police officers talked to a fatally-wounded gas station attendant who told them that "Rick" (Bryant) had shot him and where the shooting took place. The victim died shortly afterward. The Court ruled by a 6-2 majority that the police were investigating an ongoing emergency when they talked to the victim. Thus, the shooting victim's statement to the police officer was admissible in evidence even though Bryant had no chance to cross examine the victim. 

The outcome demonstrates the fuzziness of the line separating an "ongoing emergency" from a "past crime."  Oddly, in Crawford, Scalia bragged that his new interpretation of the Confrontation Clause was better than the former interpretation because Crawford would provide greater certainty.

Scalia's dissenting opinion essentially dropped an f-bomb on the majority, though he used somewhat more polite terms like "gross distortion of the law" and "shambles of the Constitution."   Scalia sounded a bit like a drowning man who sees the Confrontation Clause passing before his eyes.  For now, Dying Declarations have been given a shot at life.