By Burt Rose
The Supreme Court of the United States has decided the case of MICHIGAN v. BRYANT, 2011 WL 676964, No. 09-150 (Feb. 28, 2011). Justice SOTOMAYOR delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices ROBERTS, KENNEDY, BREYER, and ALITO joined. Justice THOMAS filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justices SCALIA and GINSBURG filed dissenting opinions. Justice KAGAN took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
At Bryant’s trial, the court admitted statements that the victim, Anthony Covington, made to police officers who discovered him mortally wounded in a gas station parking lot. A jury convicted Bryant of second-degree murder. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Michigan held that the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause, as explained in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 367 (2004), and Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813, 822 (2006), rendered Covington’s statements inadmissible testimonial hearsay, and the court reversed Bryant’s conviction. The High Court granted the State’s petition for a writ of certiorari to consider whether the Confrontation Clause barred the admission at trial of Covington’s statements to the police.
Justice Sotomayor held that the circumstances of the interaction between Covington and the police objectively indicated that the primary purpose of the interrogation was to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency. Covington’s encounter with the police and all of the statements he made during that interaction occurred within the first few minutes of the police officers’ arrival and well before they secured the scene of the shooting. When the police arrived at Covington’s side, their first question to him was “What happened?” Covington’s response was either “Rick shot me” or “I was shot.” In response to further questions, Covington explained that the shooting occurred through the back door of Bryant’s house and provided a physical description of the shooter. When he made the statements, Covington was lying in a gas station parking lot bleeding from a mortal gunshot wound to his abdomen. His answers to the police officers’ questions were punctuated with questions about when emergency medical services would arrive. He was obviously in considerable pain and had difficulty breathing and talking. From this description of his condition and report of his statements, a person in Covington’s situation would not have had a “primary purpose” “to establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution.”
Because the prospect of fabrication in statements given for the primary purpose of resolving an emergency is presumably significantly diminished, the Confrontation Clause does not require such statements to be subject to the crucible of cross-examination. Therefore, Covington’s identification and description of the shooter and the location of the shooting were not testimonial statements, and their admission at Bryant’s trial did not violate the Confrontation Clause.
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