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Is Williams a 'Wink and a Nod' to Bypass Confrontation Clause?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on June 20, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Illinois Supreme Court in a 5-4 Confrontation Clause decision. The case, Williams v. Illinois, raised the question of whether an expert witness could testify about DNA testing results performed by a non-testifying analyst. The Supreme Court concluded that such testimony didn't violate the Confrontation Clause.

This was by no means a straightforward decision, notes The Atlantic. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy. Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment only, but not the reasoning. Justice Kagan filed a dissenting opinion, which Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor joined.

During Petitioner Sandy Williams' bench trial on rape charges, prosecutors introduced Sandra Lambatos, an expert witness who testified that Williams' DNA matched samples retrieved from the victim. Lambatos, however, had no role in testing the samples. (Lambatos worked for the Illinois State Police lab, which sent the sample to Cellmark Diagnostics Laboratory in Germantown, Maryland, for testing.)

The defense moved to exclude Lambatos' testimony. The trial judge refused, and ultimately found Williams guilty. The Illinois Supreme Court later concluded that Lambatos' testimony was admissible.

Monday, a Supreme Court plurality affirmed that decision because "for Confrontation Clause purposes, the references to Cellmark in the trial record either were not hearsay or were not offered for the truth of the matter asserted."

Justice Alito went on to note, "Even if the Cellmark report had been introduced for its truth, we would nevertheless conclude that there was no Confrontation Clause violation. The Confrontation Clause refers to testimony by 'witnesses against' an accused ... Here, the primary purpose of the Cellmark report ... was to catch a dangerous rapist who was still at large, not to obtain evidence for use against petitioner."

Justice Kagan, however, highlighted the importance of allowing the defense to cross-examine the actual analyst who examined the evidence. In her dissent, Justice Kagan recounted the tale of a California rape trial for which Cellmark -- the same Cellmark that analyzed Williams' results -- mixed up the DNA samples.

Kagan explained that Williams' attorney should have had a chance to inquire about the testing analyst's "proficiency, the care he took in performing his work, and his veracity." Furthermore, "[Lambatos] had no knowledge at all of Cellmark's operations. Indeed, for all the record discloses, she may never have set foot in Cellmark's laboratory."

According to Justice Kagan, the effect of Lambatos' testimony was to say, "I concluded that Williams was the rapist because Cellmark, an accredited and trustworthy laboratory, says that the rapist has a particular DNA profile and, look, Williams has an identical one," therefore Williams should have been allowed to cross-examine the person who came to the conclusion that Williams shared the rapist's DNA profile. Any other conclusion, according to Kagan, bypasses the Constitution with "a wink and a nod" to the Confrontation Clause.

Who got it right? Justice Alito or Justice Kagan?

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