On Tuesday, December 6th, the Court will hear arguments in Williams v. Illinois to resolve an evidentiary question: “Whether a state rule of evidence allowing an expert witness to testify about the results of DNA testing performed by non-testifying analysts, where the defendant has no opportunity to confront the actual analysts, violates the Confrontation Clause.”
The issue comes out of the Court’s 2004 opinion in Crawford v. Washington, in which the Court held that, in order to introduce testimonial statements prepared prior to trial against a criminal defendant, the Sixth Amendment required the government to make the declarant available for cross examination.
That holding has significantly altered trial proceedings where the government seeks to introduce lab results in criminal cases. Prior to Crawford, the state could introduce the report itself. Now, because the Court has determined that lab reports are testimonial statements, prosecutors can only do so if they make available for cross examination the lab technician who prepared the report.
In, Williams, The Supreme Court of Illinois held that the state could introduce expert witness testimony whose opinion was based on a lab report that itself was not introduced into evidence without implicating the Crawford rule.
Their holding came out of the Illinois, and federal, rule of evidence that expert witnesses may state an opinion that is based on evidence that is not introduced at trial so long as an expert of this type would ordinarily rely on this form of evidence. The Supreme Court of Illinois also held that it was not a Sixth Amendment violation for the expert witness to discuss the test if it is being introduced to explain the basis for the expert’s opinion, and not for its truth.
Sandy Williams was charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. At his bench trial the judge found that Williams had kidnapped and raped a young woman in Chicago. The woman subsequently contacted the police and a sexual assault evidence collection kit was administered.
The kit was sent to the Illinois State Police Crime Lab for testing. There, it was analyzed by a forensic biologist named Brian Hapack. A sample was then sent to another forensic lab in Maryland, called Cellmark, which conducted DNA testing. After Williams was arrested for an unrelated offense and a blood sample of his was analyzed by forensic scientist Karen Kooi.
At the bench trial, a different forensic biologist, Sandra Lambatos, who matched the two results. She testified about the DNA test used for both samples; that it was common practice in her industry for DNA analysis to rely on each other’s work; and that she routinely relied on the results from Cellmark and explained why she believed they were accurate before.
Then, over defense counsel’s objections, Lambatos testified about the results of her test and expressed that, in her opinion, the two DNA samples were a match. Cellmark’s report itself was not introduced into evidence nor did Lambatos read from the report in court.
Oral arguments in this case come just six months after the Court’s decision in Bullcoming v. New Mexico, in which the Court held that making available for cross examination a supervisor who did not oversee the particular lab test performed by an analyst was not sufficient to overcome Crawford. There, however, the report itself was introduced at trial and its results were introduced for their truth.
In his brief, Petitioner Williams argues that the formal admission of a testimonial statement is not necessary to implicate Crawford because Cellmark’s testimonial statements were conveyed through Lambatos’s testimony. And, they argue that Cellmark’s statements were necessarily presented for their truth, as the judge necessarily had to accept them in order for Lambatos’s opinion to have probative value in the case.
Respondents argue that William’s Sixth Amendment rights were satisfied by making Lambatos available for cross examination; that Cellmark’s report was not testimonial; and that even if the Trial Court erred, that error was harmless because of the victim’s line-up identification of Williams.
Although the Crawford requirements impose additional burdens on prosecutors, the Court has appeared unwilling to allow for technical escape mechanisms as indicated by its holding in Bullcoming. Whether it will maintain that resolve in the face of the evidentiary technique at issue in Williams remains to be seen.