Published on: Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Supreme Court on Thursday in Hemphill v. New York sided with a criminal defendant who said his Sixth Amendment rights were violated at a trial during which he was convicted of murder.

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 (previous coverage available here and here).

Hemphill was charged with a 2006 fatal shooting. 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.

The Supreme Court rejected that theory and ruling. “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 Supreme Court 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.”