Williams v. Illinois
567 U.S. ___ (2012)

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Justia Opinion Summary
In petitioner's bench trial for rape, the prosecution called an expert who testified that a DNA profile produced by an outside lab matched a profile produced by the state police lab using a sample of petitioner's blood. At issue was whether Crawford v. Washington precluded the expert witness from testifying in a manner that had long been allowed under the law of evidence. Specifically, did Crawford bar an expert from expressing an opinion based on facts about a case that have been made known to the expert but about which the expert was not competent to testify. Also at issue was whether Crawford substantially impeded the ability of prosecutors to introduce DNA evidence and thus could effectively relegate the prosecution in some cases to reliance on older, less reliable forms of proof. The Court concluded that this form of expert testimony did not violate the Confrontation Clause because the provision had no application to out-of-court statements that were not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Therefore, the Court concluded that the expert's testimony did not violate the Sixth Amendment. As a second, independent basis for the Court's decision, even if the report produced by the outside lab had been admitted into evidence, there would have been no Confrontation Clause violation.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

WILLIAMS v. ILLINOIS

certiorari to the supreme court of illinois

No. 10–8505. Argued December 6, 2011—Decided June 18, 2012

At petitioner’s bench trial for rape, Sandra Lambatos, a forensic specialist at the Illinois State Police lab, testified that she matched a DNA profile produced by an outside laboratory, Cellmark, to a profile the state lab produced using a sample of petitioner’s blood. She testified that Cellmark was an accredited laboratory and that business records showed that vaginal swabs taken from the victim, L. J., were sent to Cellmark and returned. She offered no other statement for the purpose of identifying the sample used for Cellmark’s profile or establishing how Cellmark handled or tested the sample. Nor did she vouch for the accuracy of Cellmark’s profile. The defense moved to exclude, on Confrontation Clause grounds, Lambatos’ testimony insofar as it implicated events at Cellmark, but the prosecution said that petitioner’s confrontation rights were satisfied because he had the opportunity to cross-examine the expert who had testified as to the match. The prosecutor argued that Illinois Rule of Evidence 703 permitted an expert to disclose facts on which the expert’s opinion is based even if the expert is not competent to testify to those underlying facts, and that any deficiency went to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility. The trial court admitted the evidence and found petitioner guilty. Both the Illinois Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court affirmed, concluding that Lambatos’ testimony did not violate petitioner’s confrontation rights because Cellmark’s report was not offered into evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

238 Ill. 2d 125, 939 N. E. 2d 268, affirmed.

     Justice Alito, joined by The Chief Justice, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Breyer, concluded that the form of expert testimony given in this case does not violate the Confrontation Clause. Pp. 10–33.

     (a) Before Crawford v. Washington, 541 U. S. 36 , this Court took the view that the Confrontation Clause did not bar the admission of out-of-court statements that fell within a firmly rooted exception to the hearsay rule. In Crawford, the Court held that such statements could be “admitted only where the declarant is unavailable, and only where the defendant has had a prior opportunity to cross-examine.” Id., at 59. In both Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U. S. 305 , and Bullcoming v. New Mexico, 564 U. S. ___, two of the many cases that have arisen from Crawford, this Court ruled that scientific reports could not be used as substantive evidence against a defendant unless the analyst who prepared and certified the report was subject to confrontation. In each case, the report at issue “contain[ed] a testimonial certification, made in order to prove a fact at a criminal trial.” 564 U. S., at ___–___. Here, in contrast, the question is the constitutionality of allowing an expert witness to discuss others’ testimonial statements if those statements are not themselves admitted as evidence. Pp. 10–13.

     (b) An expert witness may voice an opinion based on facts concerning the events at issue even if the expert lacks first-hand knowledge of those facts. A long tradition in American courts permits an expert to testify in the form of a “hypothetical question,” where the expert assumes the truth of factual predicates and then offers testimony based on those assumptions. See Forsyth v. Doolittle, 120 U. S. 73 . Modern evidence rules dispense with the need for hypothetical questions and permit an expert to base an opinion on facts “made known to the expert at or before the hearing,” though such reliance does not constitute admissible evidence of the underlying information. Ill. Rule Evid. 703; Fed. Rule Evid. 703. Both Illinois and Federal Rules bar an expert from disclosing the inadmissible evidence in jury trials but not in bench trials. This is important because Crawford, while departing from prior Confrontation Clause precedent in other respects, reaffirmed the proposition that the Clause “does not bar the use of testimonial statements for purposes other than establishing the truth of the matter asserted.” 541 U. S., at 59, n. 9. Pp. 13–16.

     (c) For Confrontation Clause purposes, the references to Cellmark in the trial record either were not hearsay or were not offered for the truth of the matter asserted. Pp. 16–27.

          (1) Petitioner’s confrontation right was not violated when Lambatos answered “yes” to a question about whether there was a match between the DNA profile “found in semen from the vaginal swabs of [L. J.]” and the one identified as petitioner’s. Under Illinois law, this putatively offending phrase was not admissible for the purpose of proving the truth of the matter asserted—i.e., that the matching DNA profile was “found in semen from the vaginal swabs.” Rather, that fact was a mere premise of the prosecutor’s question, and Lambatos simply assumed it to be true in giving her answer. Because this was a bench trial, the Court assumes that the trial judge understood that the testimony was not admissible to prove the truth of the matter asserted. It is also unlikely that the judge took the testimony as providing chain-of-custody evidence. The record does not support such an understanding; no trial judge is likely to be so confused; and the admissible evidence left little room for argument that Cellmark’s sample came from any source but L. J.’s swabs, since the profile matched the very man she identified in a lineup and at trial as her attacker. Pp. 16–21.

          (2) Nor did the substance of Cellmark’s report need to be introduced in order to show that Cellmark’s profile was based on the semen in L. J.’s swabs or that its procedures were reliable. The issue here is whether petitioner’s confrontation right was violated, not whether the State offered sufficient foundational evidence to support the admission of Lambatos’ opinion. If there were no proof that Cellmark’s profile was accurate, Lambatos’ testimony would be irrelevant, but the Confrontation Clause bars not the admission of irrelevant evidence, but the admission of testimonial statements by declarants who are not subject to cross-examination. Here, the trial record does not lack admissible evidence with respect to the source of the sample tested by Cellmark or the reliability of its profile. The State offered conventional chain-of-custody evidence, and the match between Cellmark’s profile and petitioner’s was telling confirmation that Cellmark’s profile was deduced from the semen on L. J.’s swabs. The match also provided strong circumstantial evidence about the reliability of Cellmark’s work. Pp. 21–25.

          (3) This conclusion is consistent with Bullcoming and Melendez-Diaz, where forensic reports were introduced for the purpose of proving the truth of what they asserted. In contrast, Cellmark’s report was considered for the limited purpose of seeing whether it matched something else, and the relevance of that match was established by independent circumstantial evidence showing that the report was based on a sample from the crime scene. There are at least four safeguards to prevent abuses in such situations. First, trial courts can screen out experts who would act as conduits for hearsay by strictly enforcing the requirement that experts display genuine “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge” to help the trier of fact understand the evidence or determine a fact at issue. Fed. Rule Evid. 702(a). Second, experts are generally precluded from disclosing inadmissible evidence to a jury. Third, if such evidence is disclosed, a trial judge may instruct the jury that the statements cannot be accepted for their truth, and that an expert’s opinion is only as good as the independent evidence establishing its underlying premises. Fourth, if the prosecution cannot muster independent admissible evidence to prove foundational facts, the expert’s testimony cannot be given weight by the trier of fact. Pp.  25–27.

          (e) Even if Cellmark’s report had been introduced for its truth, there would have been no Confrontation Clause violation. The Clause refers to testimony by “witnesses against” an accused, prohibiting modern-day practices that are tantamount to the abuses that gave rise to the confrontation right, namely, (a) out-of-court statements having the primary purpose of accusing a targeted individual of engaging in criminal conduct, and (b) formalized statements such as affidavits, depositions, prior testimony, or confessions. These characteristics were present in every post-Crawford case in which a Confrontation Clause violation has been found, except for Hammon v. Indiana, 547 U. S. 813 . But, even in Hammon, the particular statement, elicited during police interrogation, had the primary purpose of accusing a targeted individual. A person who makes a statement to resolve an ongoing emergency is not like a trial witness because the declarant’s purpose is to bring an end to an ongoing threat. Michigan v. Bryant, 562 U. S. ___, ___. Such a statement’s admissibility “is the concern of . . . rules of evidence, not the Confrontation Clause. ” Id., ___–___ . The forensic reports in Melendez-Diaz and Bullcoming ran afoul of the Confrontation Clause because they were the equivalent of affidavits made for the purpose of proving a particular criminal defendant’s guilt. But the Cellmark report’s primary purpose was to catch a dangerous rapist who was still at large, not to obtain evidence for use against petitioner, who was neither in custody nor under suspicion at that time. Nor could anyone at Cellmark possibly know that the profile would inculpate petitioner. There was thus no “prospect of fabrication” and no incentive to produce anything other than a scientifically sound and reliable profile. Bryant, supra, at ___, ___. Lab technicians producing a DNA profile generally have no way of knowing whether it will turn out to be incriminating, exonerating, or both. And with numerous technicians working on a profile, it is likely that each technician’s sole purpose is to perform a task in accordance with accepted procedures. The knowledge that defects in a DNA profile may be detected from the profile itself provides a further safeguard. Pp. 28–33.

     Justice Thomas concluded that the disclosure of Cellmark’s out-of-court statements through Lambatos’ expert testimony did not violate the Confrontation Clause solely because Cellmark’s statements lacked the requisite “formality and solemnity” to be considered “ ‘testimonial,’ ” see Michigan v. Bryant, 562 U. S. ___, ___ (Thomas, J., concurring in judgment). Pp. 1–16.

     (a) There was no plausible reason for the introduction of Cellmark’s statements other than to establish their truth. Pp. 1–8.

          (1) Illinois Rule of Evidence 703 permits an expert to base his opinion on facts about which he lacks personal knowledge and to disclose those facts to the trier of fact. Under Illinois law, such facts are not admitted for their truth, but only to explain the basis of the expert’s opinion. See People v. Pasch, 152 Ill. 2d 133. But state evidence rules do not trump a defendant’s constitutional right to confrontation. This Court ensures that an out-of-court statement was introduced for a “legitimate, nonhearsay purpose” before relying on the not-for-its-truth rationale to dismiss the Confrontation Clause’s application. See Tennessee v. Street, 471 U. S. 409 . Statements introduced to explain the basis of an expert’s opinion are not introduced for a plausible nonhearsay purpose because, to use the basis testimony in evaluating the expert’s opinion, the factfinder must consider the truth of the basis testimony. This commonsense conclusion is not undermined by any historical practice exempting expert basis testimony from the rigors of the Confrontation Clause. Before the Federal Rules of Evidence were adopted in 1975, an expert could render an opinion based only on facts that the expert had personally perceived or learned at trial. In 1975, that universe of facts was expanded to include facts that the expert learned out of court by means other than his own perception. The disclosure of such facts raises Confrontation Clause concerns. Pp. 2–5.

          (2) Those concerns are fully applicable here. In concluding that petitioner’s DNA profile matched the profile derived from L. J.’s swabs, Lambatos relied on Cellmark’s out-of-court statements that its profile was in fact derived from those swabs, rather than from some other source. Thus, the validity of Lambatos’ opinion ultimately turned on the truth of Cellmark’s statements. Pp. 5–7.

     (b) These statements, however, were not “testimonial” for purposes of the Confrontation Clause, which “applies to ‘witnesses’ against the accused—in other words, those who ‘bear testimony.’ ” Crawford v. Washington, 541 U. S. 36 . “ ‘Testimony,’ ” in turn, is “ ‘[a] solemn declaration or affirmation made for the purpose of establishing or proving some fact.’ ” Ibid. In light of its text, the Confrontation Clause regulates only the use of statements bearing “indicia of solemnity.” Davis v. Washington, 547 U. S. 813 –837, 840 (opinion of Thomas, J.). This test comports with history because solemnity marked the practices that the Confrontation Clause was designed to eliminate, namely, the ex parte examination of witnesses under English bail and committal statutes. See id., at 835. Accordingly, the Clause reaches “formalized testimonial materials,” such as depositions, affidavits, and prior testimony, or statements resulting from “formalized dialogue,” such as custodial interrogation. Bryant, supra, at ___. Applying these principles, Cellmark’s report is not a statement by a “witnes[s]” under the Confrontation Clause. It lacks the solemnity of an affidavit or deposition, for it is neither a sworn nor a certified declaration of fact. And, although it was produced at the request of law enforcement, it was not the product of formalized dialogue resembling custodial interrogation. Melendez-Diaz, 557 U. S. 305 , and Bullcoming v. New Mexico, 564 U. S. ___, distinguished. Pp. 8–15.

     Alito, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy and Breyer, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a concurring opinion. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Kagan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined.

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