WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a murder victim’s prior statements cannot be used against her killer because it would violate a defendant’s constitutional right to confront witnesses who testify against him.
The high court’s 6-3 ruling was a victory for Dwayne Giles, who had been convicted by a jury in Los Angeles for the 2002 shooting death of his former girlfriend, Brenda Avie. He was sentenced to at least 50 years in prison.
The court majority said the constitutional right to confront a witness applied even if the defendant was responsible for the witness being unavailable to testify at trial.
At the trial, the jury heard statements that Avie made to a police officer several weeks before her death that Giles had assaulted her and threatened to kill her.
Giles appealed his conviction and argued that Avie’s statements should not have been allowed because his lawyers never had an opportunity to cross-examine her.
Defendants forfeit their right to confront witnesses when the murder was intended to prevent the witness from testifying.
But courts around the country have been split on what to do in cases that lack proof the murder had been committed to make a witness unavailable as a witness. The conflicting rulings occurred since the Supreme Court in 2004 strongly affirmed a defendant’s right to confront witnesses.
The majority ruling, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, overturned a decision by a California court that upheld Giles’ conviction. The Supreme Court said the victim’s testimony should have been excluded.
Justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens and Anthony Kennedy dissented.
California was backed by 37 other states and by groups that oppose domestic violence in arguing that such cases often depend on statements from victims who are unavailable to testify. But supporters of Giles argued that a ruling for the state would increase the use of unreliable hearsay testimony.
Reporting by James Vicini, editing by Vicki Allen