Supreme Court Rejects “Door Opening Rule” Exception to Confrontation Clause
In Hemphill v. New York, 595 U. S. ____ (2022), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the trial court’s admission—over a criminal defendant’s objection—of the plea allocution transcript of an unavailable witness violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him. The Court’s vote was 8-1, with Justice Clarence Thomas as the lone dissenter.
Facts of the Case
In April 2006, a stray 9-millimeter bullet killed a 2-year-old child after a street fight in the Bronx. Eyewitnesses described the shooter as wearing a blue shirt or sweater. Police officers determined Ronnell Gilliam was involved and that Nicholas Morris had been at the scene.
A search of Morris’ apartment revealed a 9-millimeter cartridge and three .357- caliber bullets. Gilliam initially identified Morris as the shooter, but he subsequently said that Darrell Hemphill, Gilliam’s cousin, was the shooter. Not crediting Gilliam’s recantation, the State charged Morris with the child’s murder and possession of a 9-millimeter handgun. In a subsequent plea deal, the State agreed to dismiss the murder charges against Morris if he pleaded guilty to a new charge of possession of a .357 revolver, a weapon that had not killed the victim. Years later, the State indicted Hemphill for the child’s murder after learning that Hemphill’s DNA matched a blue sweater found in Gilliam’s apartment shortly after the murder.
At his trial, Hemphill elicited undisputed testimony from a prosecution witness that police had recovered 9-millimeter ammunition from Morris’ apartment, thus pointing to Morris as the culprit. Morris was not available to testify at Hemphill’s trial because he was outside the United States. Relying on People v. Reid, 19 N.Y. 3d 382 (20212), and over the objection of Hemphill’s counsel, the trial court allowed the State to introduce parts of the transcript of Morris’ plea allocution to the .357 gun possession charge as evidence to rebut Hemphill’s theory that Morris committed the murder. The court reasoned that although Morris’ out-of-court statements had not been subjected to cross-examination, Hemphill’s arguments and evidence had “opened the door” and admission of the statements was reasonably necessary to correct the misleading impression Hemphill had created. The State, in its closing argument, cited Morris’ plea allocution and emphasized that possession of a .357 revolver, not murder, was the crime Morris committed. The jury found Hemphill guilty. Both the New York Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals affirmed Hemphill’s conviction.
Supreme Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the trial court’s admission of the transcript of Morris’ plea allocution over Hemphill’s objection violated Hemphill’s Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him. “Hemphill did not forfeit his confrontation right merely by making the plea allocution arguably relevant to his theory of defense,” Justice Sonia Sotomayorwrote on behalf of the majority.
As Justice Sotomayor explained, the Confrontation Clause provides a criminal defendant the bedrock right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” In Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), the Supreme Court held that the requirement was “most naturally read” to admit “only those exceptions established at the time of the founding,” citing that “the Framers would not have allowed admission of testimonial statements of a witness who did not appear at trial unless he was unavailable to testify, and the defendant had had a prior opportunity for cross-examination.”
While the State accepted those principles, it maintained that the “opening the door” rule announced in People v. Reid is not an exception to the Confrontation Clause but a mere “procedural rule” that “treats the misleading door-opening actions of counsel as the equivalent of failing to object to the confrontation violation,” an argument the Supreme Court rejected. While the Court acknowledged that that the Sixth Amendment leaves States with flexibility to adopt reasonable procedural rules governing the exercise of a defendant’s right to confrontation, it found that the door-opening principle discussed in Reid is not in the same class of procedural rules. “ Rather, it is a substantive principle of evidence that dictates what material is relevant and admissible in a case,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “As this case illustrates, the principle requires a trial court to determine whether one party’s evidence and arguments, in the context of the full record, have created a ‘misleading impression’ that requires correction with additional material from the other side.”
Justice Sotomayor went on to explain that the trial judge is not, for Confrontation Clause purposes, supposed to weigh the reliability or credibility of testimonial hearsay evidence. Rather, its role is to ensure that the Constitution’s procedures for testing the reliability of that evidence are followed. She wrote:
The trial court here violated this principle by admitting unconfronted, testimonial hearsay against Hemphill simply because the judge deemed his presentation to have created a misleading impression that the testimonial hearsay was reasonably necessary to correct. For Confrontation Clause purposes, it was not for the judge to determine whether Hemphill’s theory that Morris was the shooter was unreliable, incredible, or otherwise misleading in light of the State’s proffered, unconfronted plea evidence. Nor, under the Clause, was it the judge’s role to decide that this evidence was reasonably necessary to correct that misleading impression. Such inquiries are antithetical to the Confrontation Clause.
The Supreme Court also rejected the State’s argument that the Reid rule is necessary to safeguard the truth-finding function of courts because it prevents the selective and misleading introduction of evidence. “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,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “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.”
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