Delaware v. Fensterer
Annotate this Case
474 U.S. 15 (1985)
U.S. Supreme Court
Delaware v. Fensterer, 474 U.S. 15 (1985)
Delaware v. Fensterer
Decided November 4, 1985
474 U.S. 15
During respondent's murder trial in a Delaware court, the State sought to prove that a cat leash was the weapon used in strangling the victim, and that a hair found on the leash was similar to the victim's hair, and had been forcibly removed. The State's expert witness testified that, in his opinion, the hair had been forcibly removed, but stated, on both direct examination and cross-examination, that he could not recall which of three methods he had employed in determining that the hair had been forcibly removed. The trial court overruled respondent's objection that the admission of the expert's testimony precluded adequate cross-examination unless he could testify as to which of the methods he relied upon. The defense offered its own expert, who testified that he had talked earlier with the State's expert and had been informed as to the method employed by the State's expert in reaching his "forcible removal" conclusion. The defense's expert then proceeded to challenge the premise of that method. Respondent was convicted, but the Delaware Supreme Court reversed, holding that, because the State's expert was unable to recall the method he used in arriving at his opinion, the admission of the opinion violated respondent's rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.
1. The admission of the State's expert's opinion did not offend the Confrontation Clause, despite his inability to recall the basis for that opinion. This case does not fall within the category of Confrontation Clause cases involving the admission of out-of-court statements as substantive hearsay evidence against the defendant and his literal right to "confront" the witness at the time of trial. The State made no attempt to introduce an out-of-court statement by its expert for any purpose, let alone as hearsay. Nor does this case fall within the category of Confrontation Clause cases involving restrictions imposed by law or by the trial court on the scope of cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. The trial court here did not limit the scope or nature of defense counsel's cross-examination of the State's expert. Generally speaking, the Confrontation Clause guarantees an opportunity for effective cross-examination (as in this case), not cross-examination that is effective in whatever way, and to whatever extent, the defense might wish.
2. The prosecution's foreknowledge that its expert would be unable to give the precise basis for his opinion did not impose an obligation on it, as a matter of due process, to refrain from introducing the expert's testimony unless the basis for that testimony could definitely be ascertained. Whether or not, under state law, the State's expert's opinion should have been admitted, the Federal Constitution does not forbid the trial court's conclusion that the expert's inability to recall the basis for his opinion went to the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility. The testimony of the defense's expert, suggesting the actual basis for the State's expert's opinion and disputing its validity, dispels any possibility of a claim that the introduction of the State's expert's opinion was so lacking in reliability and so prejudicial as to deny respondent a fair trial.
Certiorari granted; 493 A.2d 959, reversed and remanded.