Kentucky v. Stincer - 482 U.S. 730 (1987)
U.S. Supreme Court
Kentucky v. Stincer, 482 U.S. 730 (1987)
Kentucky v. Stincer
Argued April 22, 1987
Decided June 19, 1987
482 U.S. 730
After a jury was sworn at respondent's Kentucky trial for committing sodomy with two minor girls, but before the presentation of evidence, the court conducted an in-chambers hearing to determine the girls' competency to testify. Respondent, but not his counsel, was excluded from this hearing. Under Kentucky law, when a child's competency to testify is raised, the judge is required to resolve whether the child is capable of observing, recollecting, and narrating the facts, and whether the child has a moral sense of the obligation to tell the truth. Thus, during the hearing, the judge and the attorneys limited themselves to questions designed to determine whether the girls were capable of remembering basic facts and of distinguishing between truth and falsehood. The judge ruled that both girls were competent to testify. Before each girl began her substantive testimony in open court, the prosecutor repeated some of the background questions asked at the hearing, while respondent's counsel, on cross-examination, repeated other such questions, particularly those regarding the girls' ability to distinguish truth from lies. After the girls' testimony was complete, respondent's counsel did not request that the court reconsider its competency rulings. Respondent was convicted, but the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed, holding that respondent's exclusion from the competency hearing violated his right to confront the witnesses against him.
1. Respondent's rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment were not violated by his exclusion from the competency hearing. Pp. 482 U. S. 736-744.
(a) The Confrontation Clause's functional purpose is to promote reliability in criminal trials by ensuring a defendant an opportunity for cross-examination. Pp. 482 U. S. 736-739.
(b) Rather than attempting to determine whether a competency hearing is a "stage of trial" (as opposed to a pretrial proceeding) subject to the Confrontation Clause's requirements, the more useful inquiry is whether excluding the defendant from the hearing interferes with his opportunity for cross-examination. No such interference occurred here, because the two girls were cross-examined in open court with respondent present and available to assist his counsel, and because any questions
asked during the hearing could have been repeated during direct and cross-examination. Moreover, the nature of the competency hearing militates against finding a Confrontation Clause violation, because questions at such hearings usually are limited to matters unrelated to basic trial issues. In addition, the judge's responsibility to determine competency continues throughout the trial, so that a competency determination may be reconsidered on motion after the substantive examination of the child. Pp. 482 U. S. 739-744.
2. Respondent's rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment were not violated by his exclusion from the competency hearing. The defendant's due process right to be present at critical stages of a criminal proceeding if his presence would contribute to the fairness of the procedure is not implicated here in light of the particular nature of the competency hearing, whereby questioning was limited to competency issues and neither girl was asked about the substantive testimony she would give at trial. There is no indication that respondent's presence at the hearing would have been useful in ensuring a more reliable competency determination. Pp. 482 U. S. 745-747.
712 S.W.2d 939, reversed.
BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 482 U. S. 748.