Court Addresses Propriety of Video Testimony in Recent Michigan Sex Assault Case

Given the contagious nature of COVID-19, courts across the country are wrestling with how to carry out criminal trials without unnecessarily exposing everyone involved to the virus. Last month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Michigan sexual assault case discussing an issue that will almost certainly have long-lasting implications in the post-COVICD-19 world. The case required the court to determine whether a defendant’s state and federal right to confront his witnesses was violated when the trial court allowed a key witness to testify over video.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was arrested in 2015 for an alleged sexual assault occurring in 1995. Evidently, while the victim of the alleged assault underwent an examination shortly after the incident, the evidence was not analyzed until 2015, when it was sent to a lab in Utah for analysis. The result of the testing indicated that the defendant’s DNA was present in the sample.

At trial, the prosecution presented the testimony of the lab technician via two-way interactive video. The defendant objected on the basis that allowing the witness to testify over video deprived him of his right to confront the witnesses against him. The trial court overruled the defendant’s objection, and the jury convicted the defendant.

On appeal, the intermediate court of appeals determined that the trial court committed an error in allowing the lab technician to testify over video. However, the court found that the error was harmless, affirming the defendant’s conviction. The defendant appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The Michigan Supreme Court reversed the defendant’s conviction, finding that the lack of in-person testimony deprived the defendant of his state and federal right to confront the witness. The court began its opinion by noting that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to confront the witnesses against them. The court went on to discuss three important U.S Supreme Court opinions involving the right to confront witnesses.

In Ohio v. Roberts, the Court held that a defendant’s confrontation rights were satisfied as long as the declarant was 1.) unavailable for trial and, 2.) the defendant had the opportunity to cross-examine the witness at an earlier date. Later, in Maryland v. Craig, the Court held that a defendant’s confrontation rights were protected “absent a face-to-face confrontation when necessary to advance an important public-policy consideration and when the evidence is sufficiently reliable.” Finally, in Crawford v. Washington, the Court reversed its decision in Ohio v. Roberts, finding that face-to-face confrontation is required “unless a witness is unavailable and the defendant had a prior opportunity for cross-examination.” Notably, the court did not overrule its decision in Maryland v. Craig.

In this case, the Michigan Supreme Court noted that the intermediate court of appeals relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Maryland v. Craig without acknowledging the subsequent decision in Crawford v. Maryland. Specifically, the intermediate appellate court held that the analyst’s testimony “should not raise the same confrontation right concerns as the testimony of a fact witness.” The appellate court also held that the cost-savings to the prosecution was a valid reason to opt for video testimony over in-person testimony.

Here, the Michigan Supreme Court disagreed with the intermediate appellate court’s resolution of the issues, finding that the rule of Maryland v. Craig should be limited to its very specific facts: a situation where a child witness testifies via two-way video for the child’s protection. Because those were not the facts here, the court held that the analyst’s testimony over two-way video was a violation of the defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him.

Have You Been Arrested for a Michigan Crime?

If you have recently been arrested for a serious Michigan felony crime, the dedicated criminal defense attorneys at Michigan Defense Law can help. Our team of experienced criminal defense lawyers represents clients in all types of cases, including Michigan sexual assault cases and other accusations of violence. To learn more, call 248-451-2200 to schedule a free consultation today.

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