WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether
prosecutors can use crime lab reports as evidence without having the
forensic analyst who prepared them testify at trial.
The reliability of crime labs has been questioned in several states and at the federal level in recent years.
State and federal courts have come to different conclusions about
whether recent Supreme Court decisions affirming the constitutional
right of a defendant to confront his accusers extend to lab reports
that are used in many drug and other cases.
The case the justices accepted, and will consider in the fall, comes from Massachusetts.
Luis Melendez-Diaz was convicted of trafficking in cocaine partly on
the basis of a crime lab analysis that confirmed that cocaine was in
plastic bags found in the car in which Melendez-Diaz was riding.
Rather than accept the report, however, Melendez-Diaz objected that he
should be allowed to question the person who prepared it about testing
methods, how the evidence was preserved and a host of other issues.
A brief supporting the defendant points out “systemic problems with
unreliable scientific data” in lab analyses, including problems in the
Massachusetts state lab.
The justices declined a separate case from Iowa, raising a similar
question about the use of videotaped interviews in child sex abuse
The decision, announced without comment Monday, leaves in place an Iowa
Supreme Court ruling that bars prosecutors from using the interview of
Jetseta Gage of Cedar Rapids against her alleged molester.
The high court’s action has little practical effect in that the
defendant, James Bentley, already is serving a 100-year sentence in
federal prison for sexual exploitation and child pornography for taking
sexually explicit pictures of the girl as well as a 1-year-old girl.
Gage was killed by Bentley’s brother, Roger Bentley, in March 2005.
Roger Bentley was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
State and federal courts have been split on the issue, with some ruling
that interviews given to counselors and other non-police professionals
may be admitted in court even without cross-examination.
The topic is of great importance to prosecutors, and 26 states joined Iowa in asking for Supreme Court review.
The cases are Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 07-591, and Iowa v. Bentley, 07-886.