Saturday, December 21, 2013

Knightly celebrates the (temporary) revival of the confrontation clause

Knightly's celebratory "play bow" for Mr. Albee
The Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause is, pretty much, what it sounds like: it gives a criminal defendant the right to cross-examine his accusers. This particular right is not a mere technicality.  We all know that talk is cheap, and criminal accusations should be tested in open court. However, judges have carved away at the right of confrontation by creating numerous exceptions by which it can be satisfied—or, more accurately, ignored—without giving the defendant the opportunity for cross-examination. In addition, our Wisconsin supreme court developed another way to get around this fundamental right: they created a far-reaching exception allowing lower courts to find that the defendant forfeited the right before trial, and therefore is not entitled to confrontation or cross-examination. And even when the United States Supreme Court held that Wisconsin’s far-reaching, pro-prosecutor “forfeiture doctrine” was unconstitutional, Wisconsin simply countered by labeling its prior forfeiture decisions (and the accompanying wrongful convictions) as harmless errors. But now, after Federal Defender Craig Albee’s recent appellate win in a Wisconsin federal court, the government's beloved “harmless error doctrine” has taken a serious hit—at least in one case. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that our state courts will learn their lesson and will stop violating our confrontation rights. It just means that they’ll have to create new ways to do so. So at least they’ll have to work for it. For more about the confrontation clause, its importance, the judicially created exceptions, and the forfeiture doctrine, read Confrontation after CrawfordJudicial (In)Discretion, and, my personal favorite, Dead Again.         

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