Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, Leon Chambers (the “Petitioner”) was tried and convicted of murdering a police officer. A jury found that he should serve life in prison.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. “[T]he exclusion of this critical evidence, coupled with the State’s refusal to permit [the Petitioner] to cross-examine McDonald, denied him a trial in accord with traditional and fundamental standards of due process. In reaching this judgment, [the majority] establish[ed] no new principles of constitutional law. Nor [did its] holding signal any diminution in the respect traditionally accorded to the States in the establishment and implementation of their own criminal trial rules and procedures. Rather, [the majority] quite simply that under the facts and circumstances of this case the rulings of the trial court deprived [the Petitioner] of a fair trial.”
Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.
Errors affecting fundamental rights are exceptions to the rule that questions not raised in the trial court cannot be raised for the first time on appeal.
Facts. Two police officers attempted to arrest somebody in a bar, but their attempts were frustrated by a group of bar patrons. The officers called for back up and one of the two officers brought a riot rifle into the bar. Three other officers arrived and they attempted to arrest the same individual. Once again, the bar patrons did not allow them to do so. Shortly thereafter, the shooting began. One of the original two police officers was shot and killed, but after being shot and before dying, he shot the Petitioner.
During trial, one of the officers at the scene testified that he saw the Petitioner shoot the officer who was killed. Another deputy testified that although he could not see a gun in the Petitioner’s, hand he saw the Petitioner “break his arm down.” Also, that the police officers did not attend to the Petitioner, but instead to the officer who was shot. Three of the Petitioner’s friends realized he was alive and drove him to the hospital. The Petitioner did not have a gun on him.
A second individual, Gable McDonald (“Mr. McDonald”), was also allegedly at the bar when the officer was killed. Mr. McDonald told a friend of his that he shot the officer with his own gun. The Petitioner’s attorney questioned Mr. McDonald and he confirmed his confession was voluntary and nobody compelled him to speak to the Petitioner’s attorney.
A month after Mr. McDonald confessed, he recanted his confession and said a reverend convinced him to confess that he killed the officer. The reverend promised him he would not go to jail and that he would share in the proceeds of a civil suit brought by the Petitioner. Mr. McDonald testified he was not at the bar when the office was killed, but down the street at another bar. Also, that he took the Petitioner to the hospital.
At the Petitioner’s trial, two months after Mr. McDonald’s testimony, he had two grounds of defense. First, that he did not shoot the officer and second, that Mr. McDonald shot the officer. As to the second, much of the evidence was deemed inadmissible and the Petitioner challenged that the rules of evidence not allowing this testimony made his trial fundamentally unfair.
The Petitioner filed a pre-trial motion requesting that Mr. McDonald appear at the trial. Also, that if the state did not call Mr. McDonald, he could call the Petitioner as an adverse witness. The trial court granted the motion requiring Mr. McDonald to appear, but reserved ruling on the second motion. The state did not call Mr. McDonald, but the Petitioner called him and laid a predicate for the introduction of his sworn out-of-court confession. It was admitted into evidence and read to the jury. On cross-examination, the state elicited the fact Mr. McDonald recanted his confession. Also, that he did not shoot the officer and only confessed due to what was promised to him by the reverend.
At the end of the states cross-examination, the Petitioner reiterated his motion to examine Mr. McDonald as a hostile witness and the trial court found that he “may be hostile, but he is not adverse in the sense of the word, so your request will be overruled.” The State Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s ruling concluding Mr. McDonald’s testimony was not adverse because he did not point his finger at the Petitioner.
The Petitioner also sought to introduce into evidence the testimony of three of Mr. McDonald’s friends he confessed to, but the court held these statements were hearsay.
“As a consequence of the combination of Mississippi’s ‘party witness’ or ‘voucher’ rule and its hearsay rule, [the Petitioner] was unable either to cross-examine [Mr.] McDonald or to present witnesses in his own behalf who would have discredited [Mr.] McDonald’s repudiation and demonstrated his complicity. [The Petitoner] had, however, chipped away at the fringes of [Mr.] McDonald’s story by introducing admissible testimony from other sources indicating that he had not been seen in the cafe where he said he was when the shooting started, that he had not been having been with [one of his aforementioned three friends], and that he possessed a .22 pistol at the time of the crime. But all that remained from [Mr.] McDonald’s own testimony was a single written confession countered by an arguably acceptable renunciation. [The Petitoner’s] defense was far less persuasive than it might have been had he been given an opportunity to subject [Mr.] McDonald’s statements to cross-examination or had
the other confessions been admitted.”
Issue. Whether the Petitioner’s right to a fair trial were violated?
Held. “The rights to confront and cross-examine witnesses and to call witnesses in one’s own behalf have long been recognized as essential to due process.” These two elements of a fair trial are implicated here.
“[The Petitioner] was denied an opportunity to subject [Mr.] McDonald’s damning repudiation and alibi to cross-examination. He was not allowed to test the witness’ recollection, to probe into the details of his alibi, or to ‘sift’ his conscience so that the jury might judge for itself whether [Mr.] McDonald’s testimony was worthy of belief.”
“Not only was he precluded from cross-examining [Mr.] McDonald, but, as the State conceded at oral argument, he was also restricted in the scope of his direct examination by the rule’s corollary requirement that the party calling the witness is bound by anything he might say. He was, therefore, effectively prevented from exploring the circumstances of [Mr.] McDonald’s three prior oral confessions and from challenging the renunciation of the written confession.”
“The argument that McDonald’s testimony was not ‘adverse’ to, or ‘against,’ [the Petitioner] is not convincing. The State’s proof at trial excluded the theory that more than one person participated in the shooting of Liberty. To the extent that [Mr.] McDonald’s sworn confession tended to incriminate him, it tended also to exculpate [the Petitioner]. And, in the circumstances of this case, [Mr.] McDonald’s retraction inculpated [the Petitioner] to the same extent that it exculpated [Mr.] McDonald. It can hardly be disputed that [Mr.] McDonald’s testimony was in fact seriously adverse to [the Petitioner]. The availability of the right to confront and to cross-examine those who give damaging testimony against the accused has never been held to depend on whether the witness was initially put on the stand by the accused or by the State. We reject the notion that a right of such substance in the criminal process may be governed by that technicality or by any narrow and unrealistic defini
tion of the word ‘against.’ The ‘voucher’ rule, as applied in this case, plainly interfered with [the Petitioner’s] right to defend against the State’s charges.”
“The hearsay statements involved in this case were originally made and subsequently offered at trial under circumstances that provided considerable assurance of their reliability. First, each of [Mr.] McDonald’s confessions was made spontaneously to a close acquaintance shortly after the murder had occurred. Second, each one was corroborated by some other evidence in the case