Jul 9, 2012

The Sixth Amendment “Confrontation Clause”

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution confers numerous rights on the citizens of the United States in regards to their defense in a criminal prosecution. One of the most important of these is found in what is referred to as the “Confrontation Clause”, that is, the defendant’s right to be confronted by the witnesses against them in a criminal prosecution.

The importance of this right was recognized following the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh for treason in 1603. At his trial, Raleigh was convicted largely based on a letter implicating him for treason, written by alleged accomplice Lord Cobham. Despite Raleigh’s objections, Lord Cobahm was never brought before the court to testify; instead, the letter was simply read to the jury without allowing Raleigh the opportunity to cross-examine him. Raleigh was convicted by the jury, sentenced to death, and eventually executed without ever being given the opportunity to confront Lord Cobham about his claims. Later one of Raleigh’s trial judges would lament, “the justice of England has never been so degraded and injured as by the condemnation of Sir Walter Raleigh.”

Since Raleigh’s trial the defendant’s right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against him in a criminal prosecution has been regarded as paramount to conducting a fair trial. Prior to the founding of the United States, several colonial governments such as Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Delaware, and North Carolina included the right of a defendant to confront witnesses in a criminal trial in their individual Declarations of Rights. The First Congress of the United States agreed with colonial advocates of this right and enshrined it in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which reads;

 “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” 

Recent Supreme Court decisions have reiterated the importance of the Confrontation Clause in the context of a criminal prosecution: these decisions have rejected attempts by the government in both State and Federal prosecutions to admit unconfronted testimony as evidence against defendants. The Supreme Court has also denied the use of recorded statements of witnesses who are unavailable to testify at trial, as well as unconfronted scientific data collected government agencies. Just as the inclusion of Lord Cobham’s letter undermined the Court of England’s ability to ascertain the truth in Sir Walter Raleigh’s trial, the Court has noted that the reliability of a witness’ testimony can only be assessed through “the crucible of cross-examination.”

Challenging the government’s use of evidence on Sixth Amendment grounds can be a complicated matter and can mean the difference between conviction and aquittal of an alleged crime. Because of the importance of this right and its application, it is crucial to be represented by an attorney capable of navigating this area of the law.

 If you have been accused of a crime, contact Parnham & McWilliams today at (713) 224-3967 or click here for our convenient online submission form. Depending on the circumstances, we have many options in mounting a strong defense for you, and we will work tirelessly to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.