Idaho v. Wright
497 U.S. 805 (1990)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Idaho v. Wright, 497 U.S. 805 (1990)

Idaho v. Wright

No. 89-260

Argued April 18, 1990

Decided June 27, 1990

497 U.S. 805

Syllabus

Respondent Wright was charged under Idaho law with two counts of lewd conduct with a minor, specifically her 5 1/2- and 2 1/2-year-old daughters. At the trial, it was agreed that the younger daughter was not "capable of communicating to the jury." However, the court admitted, under Idaho's residual hearsay exception, certain statements she had made to a pediatrician having extensive experience in child abuse cases. The doctor testified that she had reluctantly answered questions about her own abuse, but had spontaneously volunteered information about her sister's abuse. Wright was convicted on both counts, but appealed only from the conviction involving the younger child. The State Supreme Court reversed, finding that the admission of the doctor's testimony under the residual hearsay exception violated Wright's rights under the Confrontation Clause. The court noted that the child's statements did not fall within a traditional hearsay exception and lacked "particularized guarantees of trustworthiness" because the doctor had conducted the interview without procedural safeguards: he failed to videotape the interview, asked leading questions, and had a preconceived idea of what the child should be disclosing. This error, the court found, was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Held: The admission of the child's hearsay statements violated Wright's Confrontation Clause rights. Pp. 497 U. S. 813-827.

(a) Incriminating statements admissible under an exception to the hearsay rule are not admissible under the Confrontation Clause unless the prosecution produces, or demonstrates the unavailability of, the declarant whose statement it wishes to use and unless the statement bears adequate indicia of reliability. The reliability requirement can be met where the statement either falls within a firmly rooted hearsay exception or is supported by a showing of "particularized guarantees of trustworthiness." Ohio v. Roberts,448 U. S. 56. Although it is presumed here that the child was unavailable within the meaning of the Clause, the evidence will be barred unless the reliability requirement is met. Pp. 497 U. S. 813-817.

(b) Idaho's residual hearsay exception is not a firmly rooted hearsay exception for Confrontation Clause purposes. It accommodates ad hoc instances in which statements not otherwise falling within a recognized hearsay exception might be sufficiently reliable to be admissible at trial,

Page 497 U. S. 806

and thus does not share the same tradition of reliability supporting the admissibility of statements under a firmly rooted hearsay exception. To rule otherwise would require that virtually all codified hearsay exceptions be found to assume constitutional stature, something which this Court has declined to do. California v. Green,399 U. S. 149, 399 U. S. 155-156. Pp. 497 U. S. 817-818.

(c) In determining that "particularized guarantees of trustworthiness" were not shown, the State Supreme Court erred in placing dispositive weight on the lack of procedural safeguards at the interview, since such safeguards may in many instances be inappropriate or unnecessary to a determination whether a given statement is sufficiently trustworthy for Confrontation Clause purposes. Rather, such trustworthiness guarantees must be shown from the totality of those circumstances that surround the making of the statement and render the declarant particularly worthy of belief. As is the case with statements admitted under a firmly rooted hearsay exception, see e.g., Green, supra, at 399 U. S. 161, evidence possessing "particularized guarantees of trustworthiness" must be so trustworthy that adversarial testing would add little to its reliability. In child abuse cases, factors used to determine trustworthiness guarantees -- such as the declarant's mental state and the use of terminology unexpected of a child of similar age -- must relate to whether the child was particularly likely to be telling the truth when the statement was made. The State's contention that evidence corroborating a hearsay statement may properly support a finding that the statement bears such trustworthiness guarantees is rejected, since this would permit admission of presumptively unreliable statements, such as those made under duress, by bootstrapping on the trustworthiness of other evidence at trial. That result is at odds with the requirement that hearsay evidence admitted under the Clause be so trustworthy that cross-examination of the declarant would be of marginal utility. Also rejected is Wright's contention that the child's statements are per se or presumptively unreliable on the ground that the trial court found the child incompetent to testify at trial. The court found only that she was not capable of communicating to the jury, and implicitly found that, at the time she made the statements, she was capable of receiving just impressions of the facts and of relating them truly. Moreover, the Clause does not erect a per se rule barring the admission of prior statements of a declarant who is unable to communicate to the jury at the time of trial. See, e. g., Mattox v. United States,156 U. S. 237, 156 U. S. 243-244. Pp. 497 U. S. 818-825.

(d) In admitting the evidence, the trial court identified only two factors -- whether the child had a motive to make up her story and whether, given her age, the statements were of the type that one would expect a child to fabricate -- relating to circumstances surrounding the making of

Page 497 U. S. 807

the statements. The State Supreme Court properly focused on the presumptive unreliability of the out-of-court statements and on the suggestive manner in which the doctor conducted his interview. Viewing the totality of the circumstances, there is no special reason for supposing that the incriminating statements about the child's own abuse were particularly trustworthy. Her statement about her sister presents a closer question. Although its spontaneity and the change in her demeanor suggest that she may have been telling the truth, spontaneity may be an inaccurate indicator of trustworthiness where there has been prior interrogation, prompting, or manipulation by adults. Moreover, the statement was not made under circumstances of reliability comparable to those required, for example, for the admission of excited utterances or statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment. Because the State does not challenge the State Supreme Court's determination that the Confrontation Clause error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, this Court will not revisit the issue. Pp. 497 U. S. 825-827.

116 Idaho 382, 775 P.2d 1224 (1989), affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, STEVENS, and SCALIA, JJ. joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 497 U. S. 827.

Page 497 U. S. 808

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.