Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, James Olden (the “Petitioner”), a black man, was convicted of forcible sodomy of a white woman. The Petitioner maintained the sex was consensual, and the victim gave several different accounts of the alleged sexual assault. The victim testified that she was living with her mother at the time of the trial, and the Petitioner sought to introduce evidence that she was living with the only witness who corroborated her story.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Sixth Amendment constitutional right to be confronted with the witnesses against the accused, includes the right to conduct reasonable cross-examination.
Issue. Was the Petitioner denied his Sixth Amendment constitutional right to confront the witness against him?
If the Petitioner was denied his Sixth Amendment constitutional right, was it harmless error?
Held. In reversing the appellate court, the Supreme Court of the United States (“Supreme Court”) issued a per curiam opinion holding that the Petitioner was denied his right to confront the witness.
The error was not harmless.
Dissent. The dissenting justice disagreed with the majority’s issuing a summary disposition because it may lead to an erroneous decision.
Discussion. The Petitioner consistently maintained that he and Ms. Matthews engaged in consensual sex. Ms. Matthew’s testimony was crucial to the prosecution’s case, and it is appropriate to allow a cross-examination that exposes the credibility, or lack thereof, of the testimony.
In determining whether the error was harmless, the Supreme Court examined the following factors: the importance of the witness’ testimony for the prosecution’s case, whether the testimony was cumulative, the presence or absence of corroborating or contradicting material evidence, the extent of cross examination allowed, and the overall strength of the prosecution’s case. Taking into account these factors, the Supreme Court found it could not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the error was harmless.