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Olden v. Kentucky

    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.

    Facts. The Petitioner and Charlie Ray Harris (“Mr. Harris”), both black, were indicted for kidnapping, rape, and forcible sodomy. The victim, Starla Matthews (“Ms. Mathews”), was a young white woman and was married at the time of the incident. Ms. Matthews gave inconsistent accounts of what happened, and her testimony was only corroborated by one witness, Bill Russell (“Mr. Russell”). The Petitioner argued that Ms. Matthews and Mr. Russell were involved in an affair with each other and Mr. Matthews lied to Ms. Russell about what happened to protect their relationship. The Petitioner contended the sex with Ms. Matthews was consensual. The Petitioner sought to introduce evidence that Ms. Matthews and Mr. Russell were living together at the time of the trial in order to show her motive to lie. During trial, Ms. Matthews testified she was living with her mother. The trial court granted to prosecutor’s motion to not allow the evidence. Mr. Harris was acquitted on all charges and t
    he Petitioner was convicted of forcible sodomy. The Petitioner claimed that the trial court’s failure to allow him to impeach Ms. Matthew’s testimony deprived him of his Sixth Amendment constitutional right to confront the witness. The appellate court upheld the conviction finding that the probative value of the evidence was outweighed by the possibility of prejudice against Ms. Matthews.

    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.


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