June 25, 2009 / 3:50 PM / 10 years ago

Top court requires lab analyst testimony

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that crime lab reports used in drug and other cases can be introduced as evidence at trial only if defendants can cross-examine the forensic analysts who prepared them.

By a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled a defendants’ constitutional right to confront witnesses against them extended to reports of forensic analysis, such as those showing the material seized by the police was cocaine.

Prosecutors use lab reports in thousands of cases each year involving illegal drugs, fingerprint identifications, blood alcohol tests and DNA evidence. Jurors most often just get the reports with any testimony by the analysts who prepared them.

About 20 states now give defendants some right to cross-examine lab employees about forensic evidence. The ruling came after recent scandals at major crime laboratories about shoddy work and errors.

The ruling involved a drug case from Massachusetts. Luis Melendez-Diaz was convicted of trafficking in cocaine partly on the basis of a crime lab analysis that certified that cocaine was in plastic bags found in the car in which he was riding.

The trial judge rejected objections from defense lawyers who argued the analyst who prepared the report must be called to testify about the testing method, how the evidence had been preserved and other issues.

Massachusetts, backed by a number of other states, and the U.S. Justice Department had argued that requiring lab workers to testify would be costly and time consuming, resulting in long delays and backlogs in court and in laboratories.

But a group called the National Innocence Network said requiring the testimony of the analyst would provide a vital safeguard for exposing during trial the sorts of widespread forensic errors that have been recently revealed.

Writing the court’s majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said the constitutional right of defendants to confront witnesses against them cannot be relaxed simply because it makes the prosecution’s task more burdensome.

He said the practice in many states already followed the ruling, and the serious disruption predicted by the state and by court’s dissenting justices has not occurred.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito dissented.

“The court sweeps away an accepted rule governing the admission of scientific evidence. Until today, scientific analysis could be introduced into evidence without testimony from the analyst who produced it. This rule has been established for at least 90 years,” Kennedy wrote.

Editing by Bill Trott

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