Supreme Court overturns New York man’s murder conviction, strengthens defendants’ rights

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The Supreme Court has overturned the murder conviction of Darrell Hemphill, a New York man, on Sixth Amendment grounds after state prosecutors cut corners and used the transcript of a witness’s testimony from another trial against him instead of having the witness testify in person.

The new ruling strengthens the right of criminal defendants to cross-examine prosecution witnesses.

The relevant language in the Sixth Amendment, which became part of the U.S. Constitution in 1791, states, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

The vote in the high court’s ruling (pdf) in Hemphill v. New York, court file 20-637, was 8–1, reversing a decision of the New York Court of Appeals. Justice Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenter.

The case goes back to Easter on April 16, 2006, when a stray 9-millimeter bullet cut short the life of a 2-year-old boy during a street fight in the Bronx borough of New York. A police investigation found that Ronnell Gilliam was involved and that Nicholas Morris was at the scene. Three witnesses in a police lineup identified Morris as the shooter. Morris’s apartment was searched and a 9mm cartridge and three .357-caliber bullets were found, according to a court summary.

At first, Gilliam said that Morris was the shooter, but he later identified Darrell Hemphill, Gilliam’s cousin, as the shooter. The state ignored Gilliam’s recantation and charged Morris with the child’s murder and possession of a 9mm handgun. In 2011, the state discovered that Hemphill’s DNA matched that found on a sweater at Morris’s apartment soon after the shooting. Hemphill was indicted for murder in 2013.

In a plea deal, prosecutors agreed to throw out the murder charge against Morris if he entered a plea of guilty to a fresh charge of possession of a .357 revolver, a weapon not connected to the victim’s death. Morris couldn’t testify at Hemphill’s trial because he wasn’t in the United States, so prosecutors submitted a transcript of Morris’s 2008 testimony regarding the handgun possession charge to rebut Hemphill’s theory that Morris committed the murder.

Hemphill objected to the admission of the transcript as evidence, arguing that not having the witness testify in person violated his constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him.

The Supreme Court agreed.

Bronx-born Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the court’s majority opinion that the Constitution’s confrontation clause is “one of the bedrock constitutional protections afforded to criminal defendants.”

The 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 Samuel Alito wrote a separate concurring opinion, which Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined.

Quoting federal law, Thomas wrote in his dissenting opinion that the Supreme Court “may review ‘[f]inal judgments or decrees rendered by the highest court of a State’ only where … a federal right ‘is specially set up or claimed’ in the state court.”

“Because Darrell Hemphill did not raise his Sixth Amendment claim in the New York Court of Appeals, we lack jurisdiction to review that court’s decision,” he wrote.

Hemphill’s case may not be over. Despite the Supreme Court ruling, prosecutors could argue in state court that, even without the statement from Morris, there was already sufficient evidence to convict Hemphill.

Hemphill’s attorney, Jeffrey L. Fisher of the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Clinic, hadn’t responded to a request for comment as of press time, but he told the Associated Press that “our position is that Hemphill’s conviction must be reversed and he’s entitled to a new trial.”

“We cannot comment on the Hemphill ruling as the case is still under litigation,” Patrice M. O’Shaughnessy of the Bronx District Attorney’s office told The Epoch Times via email.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared Jan. 20, 2022, in The Epoch Times.