U.S. Supreme Court

'Opening the door’ rule violated defendant's rights under Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause, SCOTUS says

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a New York’s “opening the door” rule violated a defendant’s rights under the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause.

The “opening the door” rule allows use of otherwise inadmissible evidence when trial testimony creates a misleading impression and opens the door to rebuttal.

The high court ruled 8-1 for Darrell Hemphill, who sought to exclude evidence about a plea allocution entered by a defendant who was now out of the country. Hemphill had contended that the other defendant was the shooter whose stray 9 mm bullet killed a 2-year-old child in a passing car during a street fight in the Bronx, New York, in 2006.

The other defendant had pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a .357 revolver after a prosecution for the child’s murder ended in a mistrial. During a search of the other defendant’s apartment, police had found a 9 mm cartridge and ammunition for a .357 revolver.

At Hemphill’s trial for the same murder, the defense introduced testimony about police finding the 9 mm cartridge on the nightstand of the other defendant. In response, the state sought to introduce the other defendant’s plea allocution asserting that he had possessed a .357 revolver at the scene of the shooting.

A judge allowed the evidence, and Hemphill was found guilty of second-degree murder.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion.

“Hemphill did not forfeit his confrontation right merely by making the plea allocution arguably relevant to his theory of defense,” she wrote.

“The confrontation clause requires that the reliability and veracity of the evidence against a criminal defendant be tested by cross-examination, not determined by a trial court. The trial court’s admission of unconfronted testimonial hearsay over Hemphill’s objection, on the view that it was reasonably necessary to correct Hemphill’s misleading argument, violated that fundamental guarantee.”

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented and said the confrontation clause issue was not properly before the court because the New York Court of Appeals didn’t expressly consider the claim.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “Can opening-the-door evidence doctrine violate the confrontation clause? SCOTUS will decide”

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