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Thomas breaks the tie in latest lab-test challenge

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a rape conviction over objections that the defendant did not have the chance to question the reliability of the DNA evidence that helped convict him.

The court’s 4-4-1 ruling went against a run of high court decisions that bolstered the right of criminal defendants to confront witnesses against them in cases involving lab tests.

Justice Clarence Thomas provided the margin of difference in the case to uphold the conviction of Sandy Williams, even though Thomas has more often sided with defendants on the issue of cross-examination of witnesses.

The case grew out of a DNA expert’s testimony that helped convict Williams of rape. The expert testified that Williams’ DNA matched a sample taken from the victim, but the expert played no role in the tests that extracted genetic evidence from the victim’s sample.

And no one from the company that performed the analysis showed up at the trial to defend it.

The court has previously ruled that defendants have the right to cross-examine the forensic analysts who prepare laboratory reports used at trial.

In this case, the state of Illinois said that the DNA expert who matched the two samples played the critical role — even though she did not actually extract the DNA samples and conduct the tests — and that she testified and was subjected to a thorough cross-examination.

The court split into three factions in this case. Four justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy — joined in a strong opinion that would give prosecutors more leeway in using lab reports without having to put the analysts who prepared them on the witness stand.

Four others — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Antonin Scalia and Sonia Sotomayor — said the Constitution does not permit the use of the lab analysis that helped convict Williams.

In the middle was Thomas, writing only for himself, but controlling the outcome of the case. Thomas said the lab report used in this case could not be considered testimonial and so doesn’t fall under the Constitution’s cross-examination requirement. The report “lacks the solemnity of an affidavit or deposition, for it is neither a sworn nor a certified declaration of fact,” Thomas said. It may be used at trial, but the judge who presided at Williams’ bench trial in the absence of a jury did not have to lend it much credence.

In her opinion, Kagan said the court muddied the issue in this case. The importance of the decision “is, to be frank, who knows what,” she said.

The Obama administration, 42 states and several local prosecutors had warned that a ruling for Williams could make it much harder for scientific experts to testify about their professional opinions, a common occurrence at criminal trials. A brief filed by the Manhattan district attorney and New York City medical examiner warned that as many as 12 employees might have to testify to allow for the use of DNA profiles.

The case is Williams v. Illinois, 10-8505.