Blog Post #40: Sentenced to Death on Hearsay Evidence

By Madeline Dang

The Sixth Amendment guarantees all criminal defendants the right to a fair trial.[1]  Inherent in the Sixth Amendment’s fair trial right is the defendant’s right to confront witnesses adverse to him.[2]  The Confrontation Clause generally requires face-to-face confrontation between the defendant and his accusers, although this is not an absolute right and the availability of a face-to-face confrontation is subject to judicial discretion.[3]  Confrontation Clause jurisprudence has generally prohibited the admission of hearsay evidence at trial, unless the defendant has had some meaningful opportunity to cross-examine the declarant of the hearsay statements.[4]  Hearsay evidence is an out-of-court statement offered at trial for the purpose of proving the truth of the matter asserted in that statement.[5]  Testimonial hearsay is a solemn declaration or affirmation made for the purpose of describing past events in anticipation of prosecution.[6]

The Federal Rules of Evidence do not apply during the sentencing phase of criminal non-capital cases, meaning that all evidence, including hearsay that was inadmissible during trial, can be considered by the sentencing judge and/or jury.[7]  However, past cases discussing the inapplicability of evidentiary rules in criminal non-capital cases did not discuss or apply that rationale to the applicability of evidentiary rules in capital cases.[8]  The Supreme Court now has the opportunity to decide whether the Federal Rules of Evidence apply during sentencing in capital cases in Umaña v. United States.[9]

On November 24, 2014, Umaña filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court on the question of whether, at a capital sentencing hearing, the government may seek to prove any aggravating factors that the defendant previously committed, but were unadjudicated at trial, through hearsay statements, without permitting the defendant to confront or cross-examine his accusers.[10]  In Umaña v. United States, the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting and killing two men during an argument over a restaurant jukebox in Greensboro, North Carolina.[11]  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Umaña’s death sentence on the grounds that the Supreme Court held in Williams v. New York that sentencing judges may consider all contents of a criminal defendant’s pre-sentence report, including hearsay evidence of prior unadjudicated offenses without violating the defendant’s due process rights; Williams was decided in 1949.[12]  During the “eligibility” phase of the Umaña’s sentencing hearing, the government presented testimony of police officers who recounted statements that other suspects in the murder case made to the officers; these suspects accused Umaña of being the shooter and killer of the two victims, as well as the murderer in another case.[13]  These statements are classic hearsay: the statements were made out-of-court by persons unavailable to testify at trial; the government offered the officers’ testimony about those out-of-court statements for the purpose of proving the fact that Umaña was the murderer.[14]  Furthermore, these statements are testimonial hearsay because the matters asserted in those statements were made for the primary purpose of describing past events and in anticipation of Umaña’s prosecution.[15]

The Supreme Court should grant certiorari to Umaña v. United Statesbecause this case reveals just exactly how much fairness criminal defendants are guaranteed when not only their liberty, but also their lives are at stake.  In granting certiorari and hearing and decidingUmaña, the Supreme Court should rule that the Federal Rules of Evidence do apply during the sentencing stage of capital cases, even if the application is limited, despite the Court’s ruling in Williams v. New York.  Williams v. New York was decided nearly seven decades ago, and the constitutional landscape has evolved dramatically since that time, which demands the Court to revisit and reassess its prior constitutional rulings.[16]  Umaña is the Court’s perfect opportunity to do just that. Modern Confrontation Clause jurisprudence, while not absolutely prohibiting hearsay evidence from being admitted, has held that admitting hearsay arguably infringes upon, if not violates, a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial because he or she is ultimately being denied the opportunity to adequately test the credibility and reliability of his or her accusers.[17]  Therefore, due process requires that criminal defendants who are found to be “death eligible” under a relevant death penalty statute[18]  be adequately protected against hearsay evidence by having the opportunity to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses during the sentencing phase in capital cases.[19]

 

[1] See U.S. Const. amend. VI (listing rights and protections that criminal defendants enjoy in criminal prosecutions).

[2] See U.S. Const. amend. VI.

[3] Compare Coy v. Iowa, 487 U.S. 1012, 1016 (1988) (holding that the Confrontation Clause guarantees criminal defendants the right to a face-to-face meeting with adverse witnesses), with Maryland v. Craig, 497 U.S. 836, 844 (1990) (declining to hold that Coy rendered the face-to-face meeting right absolute).

[4] See, e.g., Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 59 (2004) (setting forth the factors under which testimonial hearsay could be admitted into evidence at trial without violating the Confrontation Clause).

[5] Fed. R. Evid. 801.

[6] See Crawford, 541 U.S. at 71 (defining “testimony”).

[7] See Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241, 250-51 (1949) (arguing that sentencing judges should be allowed to hear all relevant sentencing information, including out-of-court statements, in order to impose a punishment that complies with modern penal goals of rehabilitating criminals).

[8] See id. at 251 (refusing to draw a line between non-capital and capital cases for the applicability of evidentiary rules, while also not expressly stating that evidentiary rules do not apply in capital cases).

[9] See United States v. Umaña, 762 F.3d 413 (4th Cir. 2014), petition for cert. filed, 2014 U.S. S. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 4115 (U.S. Nov. 24, 2014) (No. 14-602).

[10] See id. at *6 (stating the question presented).

[11] See id. at *8.

[12] See Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241, 245, 251-52 (1949) (justifying the sentencing judge’s consideration of hearsay evidence of the defendant’s prior offenses, none of which had been adjudicated, in imposing a death sentence).

[13] See Umaña, 762 F.3d 413 (4th Cir. 2014), petition for cert. filed, 2014 U.S. S. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 4115, at *8-9 (U.S. Nov. 24, 2014) (No. 14-602).

[14] See generally Fed. R. Evid. 802.

[15] See generally Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 61 (2004).

[16] See Umaña, 762 F.3d 413 (4th Cir. 2014), petition for cert. filed, 2014 U.S. S. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 4115, at *9-10 (U.S. Nov. 24, 2014) (No. 14-602).

[17] Compare Coy v. Iowa, 487 U.S. 1012, 1016 (1988), with Maryland v. Craig, 497 U.S. 836, 844 (1990).

[18] See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591, 3593 (2015)  (stating that when the government imposes a death penalty in federal court, the jury during a separate sentencing hearing, must, among other factors, find unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of any statutory or nonstatutory aggravating factors).

[19] Compare Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 61 (2004) (discussing why the Confrontation Clause applies to testimonial hearsay), with Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 305 (stating that a death penalty is qualitatively different from a sentence of imprisonment and therefore, there is a corresponding difference in the need for reliability of evidence in determining whether death is the appropriate punishment).