WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled against a defendant in a murder trial who wanted to exclude the dying victim’s identifying statements because the accused shooter had no chance to cross-examine the victim.
The court voted 6-2 that when the statements are made to police officers who are trying to deal with an “ongoing emergency,” they can be admitted at trial without violating the Constitution’s mandate that the accused have the chance to confront the witnesses against them.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the court’s majority opinion over a furious dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia.
In this case, Anthony Covington, the victim of a shooting in Detroit, died hours after police found him in a parking lot with a gunshot wound to his abdomen. The victim identified his assailant as Richard Perry Bryant, who was later arrested, tried and convicted of the crime. Michigan’s Supreme Court ordered a new trial, ruling that the statements should not have been admitted into evidence.
But Sotomayor said the Michigan court ruling could not stand. “At bottom, there was an ongoing emergency here where an armed shooter, whose motive for and location after the shooting were unknown, had mortally wounded Covington within a few blocks and a few minutes of the location where the police found Covington,” she said.
Monday’s decision is the first concerning the Constitution’s confrontation clause to go against a defendant since a 2004 decision significantly strengthened the right to cross-examine witnesses.
Scalia, who has taken the lead on behalf of defendants in these cases, pilloried the court’s opinion. He said Covington was trying to make sure that Bryant would be held accountable and the police, rather than worrying about safety, were more interested in investigating the crime. “Today’s tale … is so transparently false that professing to believe it demeans this institution,” Scalia said. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a separate, milder, dissent.
Justice Elena Kagan did not participate because, as a Justice Department lawyer, she signed a brief supporting the prosecutors.
The case is Michigan v. Bryant, 09-150.