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Media Alerts - Blackston v. Rapelje -- Sixth Circuit
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April 1, 2015
  Blackston v. Rapelje -- Sixth Circuit
Headline: Sixth Amendment right to confrontation guarantees accused more than in-person confrontation.

Areas of Law: Criminal Law; Evidence; Confrontation Clause

Issues Presented: Did the state court properly exclude the recantations of two key witnesses, reasoning that the Confrontation Clause only guarantees a defendant's right to in-person cross-examination? If not, was the exclusion of the recanted statements harmless error?

Brief Summary:

The defendant was charged with murder, and the state's case depended on the testimony of five witnesses. After the defendant's first trial, two of the key witnesses recanted their prior inculpatory statements and were declared unavailable to testify at the retrial. The state court allowed the witnesses' testimony from the first trial to be read into the record but refused to allow evidence of the witnesses' recantations. The defendant sought federal habeas relief, arguing that the state unreasonably abridged his right to confrontation under the Sixth Amendment. The Sixth Circuit held that denying the defendant the opportunity to impeach the witnesses' testimony with proof of their recantations violated his Sixth Amendment right to confrontation, and this constitutional error was not harmless.

Extended Summary:

The state charged the defendant with first-degree murder. No physical evidence linked the defendant to the crime. The state's case depended entirely on the testimony of five witnesses. At trial, the defendant's ex-girlfriend and an associate testified against him. The jury convicted the defendant, but the trial judge reversed the conviction and granted a retrial because he had misinformed the jury about the extent of the associate's immunity deal.

Before the defendant's retrial, two of the five witnesses (the associate and the ex-girlfriend) prepared written statements recanting their testimony from the first trial. At the second trial, the state called both witnesses to testify, but due to their erratic behavior on the stand, they were declared unavailable for testifying. Instead, the court ordered that the witnesses' testimony from the first trial be read into the record. The court denied the defendant's request to impeach this testimony by presenting evidence of the witnesses' recantations. The second jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder.

The defendant appealed in the state appellate system. After exhausting his state remedies, he petitioned for federal habeas relief, arguing that the state trial court violated his Sixth Amendment right of confrontation and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process by refusing to allow him to impeach the unavailable witnesses' testimony with evidence of their recantations. The district court granted a conditional habeas writ.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the state trial court improperly excluded the recantations of both witnesses in violation of the defendant's Sixth Amendment right. The Sixth Circuit stated that a defendant has a right to confront all witnesses that bear testimony against him or her, regardless of the manner in which the state presents its witnesses' testimony to the jury. As such, the defendant had the right to confront and impeach all witnesses who testified against him, whether through live cross-examination or by reading the written recantations into the record.

The Sixth Circuit further concluded that trial court's exclusion of the recantations was not harmless error considering the remaining testimony.
In reaching these conclusions, the Sixth Circuit first rejected the state's argument that there is no clearly established right to confrontation other than by live cross-examination. The state's argument relied, in part, on the Supreme Court's 1895 decision in Mattox v. U.S., which held that "admission of a witness's inconsistent statements required that the offering party lay a foundation by calling the witness to explain the inconsistency."

The Sixth Circuit found two faults with the state's Mattox argument. First, the court noted that the requirement allowing a witness to testify about an inconsistency was rooted in a rule of evidence. Therefore, the Mattox decision merely interpreted a rule of evidence and had no relevance to the constitutional issue presented in the defendant's case. Moreover, the court noted that the comments to Federal Rule of Evidence 806 singled out the Mattox case for express disapproval.

The state also relied on the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Nevada v. Jackson, which involved a rape conviction and a similar recantation scenario. The Sixth Circuit distinguished Jackson because it concerned a local evidentiary rule that barred admission of extrinsic evidence. And the defendant in Jackson was also able to extensively cross-examine the witness during trial.

Thus, the Sixth Circuit reasoned that Jackson would only be relevant to the state's argument if the unavailable witnesses' recantations were considered extrinsic evidence. But the court found that the witnesses' recantations were not extrinsic evidence because they were not being offered to prove inconsistencies in another witness's testimony; instead, the defense wanted to introduce the witnesses' own written statements to impeach their own testimony. Since the recantations did not address the witnesses' credibility on collateral matters, but rather material issues in dispute, they were admissible at trial.

Panel: Judge Daughtrey, Judge Kethledge, and Judge Donald.

Counsel (Argued and On Brief): B. Eric Restuccia, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant. Kimberly A. Jolson, JONES DAY, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellee.

Date of Issued Opinion: February 17, 2005

Docket Number: 12-2668

Decided: Affirmed

Author of Opinion: Judge Daughtrey

Case Alert Author: Cristina D. Solis

Link to Full Opinion:

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 04/01/2015 11:13 AM     6th Circuit  

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