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Supreme Court Sides With Illinois In DNA Case

The U.S. Supreme Court, headed into the homestretch of its term, once again weighed into the question of whether lab technicians must testify in criminal cases about test results. But in four separate opinions that spanned 92 pages, the justices were anything but clear.

In the past few years, the Supreme Court has twice ruled that when lab tests are introduced as evidence, the individuals who conducted those tests must testify so that their methods and conclusions are subject to cross-examination. In each of the prior cases, the court was closely divided and ideologically scrambled, with the court's most conservative and most liberal justices agreeing on the defendant's right to confront the evidence against him.

On Monday, however, that narrow majority splintered into an almost incomprehensible mishmash. The end result was that a five-justice majority upheld an Illinois rape conviction despite the fact the defendant did not have the chance to question the reliability of the DNA evidence that helped convict him. But the five justices could not agree on a single legal rationale.

"This is kind of the most prominent battleground in criminal procedure right now," says Stanford law professor Jeff Fisher.

Case History

On Feb. 10, 2000, a young woman was abducted in Chicago while she was walking home. She was forced into a car, raped, robbed and put back onto the street. The victim was taken to a hospital where doctors took vaginal swabs for a rape kit. The swabs were sent to a private lab, named Cellmark, for analysis.

When the report from that lab was sent back to the Illinois state lab and put through a computer check, analysts came up with a hit linking these DNA results to a man named Sandy Williams, who had been arrested on unrelated charges. Williams was then charged with the rape, and at trial, the state analyst who conducted the computer search, Sandra Lambatos, testified that Williams' DNA matched the DNA profile compiled by the Cellmark lab after the rape.

Williams appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that he was denied the right to subject the evidence against him to cross-examination because the state did not call anyone from the Cellmark lab to testify. On Monday the Supreme Court split into three separate camps on the question.

Four justices — Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Chief Justice John Roberts — said the Cellmark lab results were not introduced as evidence and that analyst Lambatos did not testify as to the accuracy of the Cellmark report. Rather, the four said, she was offering her expert opinion of the match.

A fifth justice, Clarence Thomas, said that of course Lambatos was vouching for the accuracy of the Cellmark report. But, he said, because the report was not certified in a formal way, it lacked the "solemnity of an affidavit or deposition, for it is neither a sworn nor a certified declaration of fact." As a result, Thomas said, it need not be subject to cross-examination.

The four dissenting justices — Elena Kagan, Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor — did so in scathing terms. Writing for the four, Kagan noted that a Cellmark technician, cross-examined in a different case, had admitted labeling errors that had wrongly implicated a defendant. Monday's opinions, she lamented, "creates five votes to approve the admission of the Cellmark report, but not a single good explanation."

Until Monday, Kagan said, the court had set a pretty clear standard requiring technicians to testify about their test results. But the result of the splintered opinions, she wrote, "is, to be frank, who knows what."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.