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Are lab analysts 'witnesses'? Supreme Court considers

December 6, 2011 | 12:37 pm

Supreme Court justices were sharply divided Tuesday concerning whether a lab analyst who did a crucial DNA test that identified a Chicago rapist must testify at his trial

This post has been updated. See note at the bottom for details.

Supreme Court justices were sharply divided Tuesday concerning whether a lab analyst who did a crucial DNA test that identified a Chicago rapist should have testified at his trial, deepening a split that defies the usual conservative and liberal lines.

Justice Antonin Scalia, the court's senior conservative, has insisted that the Constitution protects criminal defendants from out-of-court statements being used against them in court. He relies on the 6th Amendment, which says the "accused shall enjoy the right ... to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

But the justices remain divided over whether those "witnesses" should include lab analysts who submit reports to the prosecution, such as technicians who check fingerprints, test the amount of alcohol in a driver's blood or make a DNA profile from a semen sample.

As the justices heard arguments in the Chicago case, Scalia clashed with Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr. over whether the DNA profiler must testify whenever DNA evidence is used at a trial.

DNA is the "crucial evidence" in a rape case, Scalia said. "We don't know how good the lab is, or how good those individuals [analysts] are."

But Breyer and Alito said that DNA profiles are often the work of 10 or 12 lab analysts. Are courts "going to be calling up to 10 technicians" to testify? Breyer asked. If so, it would be "a sea change" for crime labs and prosecutors, he said.

Taking Scalia's side, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said one lab analyst could testify, not necessarily 10.

"Ten is not far-fetched," Alito countered, if the Constitution indeed requires that all those who furnish "testimonial evidence" must testify in court.

And so it went for the hour as the justices went back and forth.

In the case before the court, Sandy Williams, a convicted rapist from Chicago, says his conviction should be overturned because the lab analyst who did his DNA profile did not testify at his trial.

After a 22-year-old woman was raped, the Illinois crime lab sent a semen sample to a Cellmark lab in Maryland, which sent back a DNA profile. Using that profile, Sandra Lambatos, an analyst at the state crime lab, matched it to a profile of Williams, who had been arrested for a different crime. Lambatos testified at his trial.

"Cellmark was not the witness against Williams," said Cook County State's Atty. Anita Alvarez, defending the conviction. Lambatos "testified as to her own expert opinion, and she was subjected to a lengthy cross-examination," she said.

But Brian Carroll, a public defender, argued that Lambatos relied entirely on the profile done at the Cellmark lab, yet no one testified as to how that analysis was done.

In June, the court split 5-4 when it overturned the conviction of a alleged drunk driver from New Mexico because the lab analyst who tested his blood did not testify.

The case of Williams vs. Illinois poses the question of whether a state's expert witness can testify in place of the lab analyst. It will be several months before a decision is handed down.

[Updated 4:12 p.m. Dec. 6: An earlier version of this post could have given the impression that a new trial has been scheduled for the man convicted of rape; the opening paragraph has been edited for clarity.] 

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-- David G. Savage in Washington

Photo: Lab tests -- and the technicians who conduct them -- are an issue for the Supreme Court. Shown here are DNA typing strips. Credit: Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times

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