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Supreme Court decides dying words can be used to convict

The Confrontation Clause of Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that the accused has the right to be confronted by the witnesses against him in all criminal prosecution. In essence, this means that a defendant has the right to have his accusers testify before him, and the defendant has the right to cross-examine his accusers under oath. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court carved out an exception to this rule that may have profound implication for people accused of crimes in this country.

In the case, Michigan v. Bryant, Richard Bryant was charged with murdering Anthony Covington. In April 2001, police found Covington at a gas station with a gunshot wound to his abdomen. Covington appeared to be in great pain and spoke with difficulty. Police officers asked him, "what had happened, who had shot him, and where the shooting had occurred."

Covington stated "Rick" had shot him and indicated he had an earlier conversation with Bryant through the back door of Bryant's house. Covington said he was shot through the door when he turned to leave. Covington died at a hospital within hours.

At Bryant's trial, the police officers testified about what Covington had told them. A jury convicted him of second-degree murder and related weapons charges, including being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Bryant appealed, arguing that the statements used against him violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment. When the appeal reached the Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor wrote for a 6-2 majority and said the police officers' questions to Covington were not designed to gather evidence. Rather, she wrote, "the interrogators' primary purpose was simply to address what they perceived to be an ongoing emergency, and the circumstances lacked any formality that would have alerted Covington to or focused him on the possible future prosecutorial use of his statements."

Justice Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion accusing the majority of "judicial mischief" and undermining the protections of the Confrontation Clause. He wrote, "For all I know, Bryant has received his just deserts. But he surely has not received them pursuant to the procedures that our Constitution requires. And what has been taken away from him has been taken away from us all."

Sources:

CNN.com, "High court says victim's dying words can be used in court," Bill Mears, 2/28/2011

Michigan v. Bryant, 09-150, (U.S. Feb. 28, 2011)

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