Published on: Monday, April 19, 2021

The Supreme Court granted cert in Hemphill v. New York on Monday. Rules of evidence protect criminal defendants from the introduction of certain prejudicial types of evidence in the prosecution’s case-in-chief, such as evidence of a defendant’s violent character. However, a defendant who takes the stand and gives testimony regarding such a subject (for example, by testifying to having a peaceful character), puts the subject at issue and thereby “opens the door” to the government introducing rebuttal evidence.

The issue is whether Hemphill “opened the door” at his trial to the use of evidence that would normally be barred by the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause.

Hemphill was charged with the 2006 shooting death of a child, who was a passenger in a car that drove by a fight on a street in the Bronx. Hemphill challenged prosecutors’ use of a statement by Nicholas Morris, whom three eyewitnesses identified as the shooter, when he pleaded guilty to possessing a .357 revolver – a different kind of gun than the one that killed the child. Prosecutors introduced the statement after Hemphill attempted to shift blame to Morris, eliciting testimony about the recovery of a 9-mm cartridge from Morris’ nightstand shortly after the shooting.

In response, the prosecution introduced that other suspect’s hearsay statement from a guilty plea allocution that he had a .357 revolver with him at the fight, not a 9-millimeter. The Sixth Amendment would normally require the prosecution to introduce such evidence through the live testimony of the other suspect so that defense counsel could cross-examine him. However, the trial judge let in the statement because the judge found that Hemphill had “opened the door” to this hearsay evidence by creating the impression that the other suspect had the 9-millimeter.

Hemphill requests the Supreme Court to make clear that the introduction of the hearsay statement violated the Sixth Amendment.