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Supreme Court says dying victim's statement can be used in court

The justices' 6-2 ruling breaks somewhat from recent decisions forbidding the use of 'hearsay' statements to police, creating a new rule for when officers are dealing with 'an ongoing emergency.'

March 01, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a shooting victim's statement to the police at a crime scene can be used in court, even if the victim later dies and cannot testify at a trial.

The 6-2 decision retreats somewhat from recent rulings by the high court that the Constitution strictly forbids prosecutors from using "hearsay" statements to the police unless the witness testifies. The 6th Amendment says an accused person has a right to be "confronted with the witnesses against him."

Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative, has been the court's foremost champion of a suspect's right to confront his or her accusers.

With Scalia in dissent, the justices announced a different rule for cases in which police deal with "an ongoing emergency." If officers arrive at a crime scene, they can ask a victim or witnesses about what happened and later testify in court as to what was said, according to the ruling.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, said there was a difference between dealing with an emergency and investigating a crime. If an officer hears something during a crime scene emergency, that statement can be used in court, she said. However, if the officers are investigating an earlier crime and ask questions of witnesses, those statements cannot be used unless the witness testifies.

The case began when Detroit police responded to a shooting in the parking lot of a gas station. The victim, Anthony Covington, said he had been shot by "Rick." He told officers where Rick lived. Covington was taken to a hospital, where he died.

Police found blood on the back porch of Richard Bryant's home. An officer testified that the victim identified "Rick," and Bryant was convicted of murder.

The Michigan Supreme Court overturned his conviction on the grounds that the victim's out-of-court statement should not have been used against Bryant.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision in Michigan vs. Bryant, saying the victim's statement could be used because the "primary purpose" of the police questioning was to deal with an "ongoing emergency" in which an assailant was at large, posing a potential threat to police and the public.

In dissent, Scalia said the decision "distorts" the 6th Amendment "and leaves it in a shambles. Instead of clarifying the law, the court makes itself the obfuscator of last resort."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote her own dissent.

Justice Elena Kagan didn't take part in the case because of her involvement when she was U.S. solicitor general.

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