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6th Amendment Violated If a Dead Man’s Statement Admitted?

 The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, binding on the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, guarantees the right of a criminal defendant “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”
Brief Synopsis: The statement of a witness who later died is admissible if the against whom it is offered had an opportunity to cross-examine the witness.
The historical origins of the Confrontation Clause are to protect against statements being used against the accused when the person making the statement is not present to be questioned about the statement.  Interpreting the clause with this in mind, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment bars “admission of testimonial statements of a witness who did not appear at trial unless he was unavailable to testify, and the defendant had a prior opportunity for cross-examination.” Crawford v. Washington (2004) 541 U.S. 36, 53-54.

With this is mid, we summarize a recent California Supreme Court decision wherein the trial court admitted the confession of a co-defendant who died in jail prior to trial.  The confession admitted responsibility for a murder, but pinned most of the blame on the remaining defendant.

CA Supreme Court San FranciscoCA Supreme Court San Francisco

The underlying facts were that in October 2011, Defendant Ruthetta Luis Hopson and her boyfriend, Julius Thomas, were arrested for the murder of Hopson’s housemate, Laverna Brown.  Ms. Hopson was trying to move into her own apartment, but could not afford the $800 security deposit.  She knew that her housemate was traveling to Atlanta for a weekend and thought she would have a large amount of cash for the trip.  Hopson therefore decided to ask her boyfriend to rob her roommate, but the robbery went poorly and she was killed by the boyfriend.

This was the defense theory of the case for Hopson.

The prosecution’s theory of the case was that Hopson had planned the murder out in advance.  The day before the murder, evidence showed, she purchased pepper spray, a folding knife, a sweatshirt and sweatpants that were too big for her.  She then put on the clothing and used a machete, a butcher knife and the folding knife to kill her housemate in the home’s garage.  Her boyfriend then came over and they disposed of the body and cleaned up the garage, using Coke to remove the blood.

When the roommate did not arrive in Georgia, the family called her landlord, who told the police she suspected Hopson was involved.  Hopson and Mr. Thomas were then arrested.

Before Thomas could be questioned under oath, he provided a confession and committed suicide in jail.

The prosecution understood that Thomas’ confession was inadmissible at trial because, while he was unavailable to testify, he had never been questioned under oath before trial.  Thus, the prosecutor asked that if Ms. Hopson testified and “opened the door” on an issue Mr. Thomas’ confession’s contradicted, that the prosecution would request that the court permit introduction of Thomas’ confession for impeachment purposes under Evidence Code § 1202.

Hopson then testified that Thomas lied to police about her having some role in the murder.  The prosecutor then asked the judge to admit Thomas’ confession because while it admitted he had some role in the murder, it also described Hopson as having helped in the murder, too.  The judge agreed to allow in the confession and Hopson was convicted of first degree murder.  She was then sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Hopson later appealed her conviction, but the court of appeal found no constitutional violation, finding that it was not entered for its truth, but to undermine the credibility of Hopson’s own account.

Hopson then appealed to the California State Supreme Court.  It found that the trial court and appellate court had erred.

It first found that the confession was testimonial in nature and thus qualified as a statement eligible for protection to defendant under the Sixth Amendment.  However, since the statement was never subject to cross examination by Hopson’s attorney, it was exactly the type of statement that Crawford intended to exclude.  The Supreme Court further found that Thomas’ statement was plainly introduced for its truth and thus was inadmissible.

Consequently, the conviction was reversed, much to the relief of Ms. Hobson, although surely she would face retrial. 

The citation for the California Supreme Court ruling discussed above is People v. Ruthetta Luis Hopson (2017) 3 Cal.5th 424.

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