Hemphill v. New York (U.S. Supreme Court, January 2022)

The Federal Docket

March 16, 2022

Following a jury trial, Darrell Hemphill was found guilty of a murder for which another suspect had previously been arrested. At Hemphill’s trial, the state introduced a transcript of that suspect’s statements during the allocution of his plea to a lesser charge. The trial court admitted this evidence despite the fact that the prior suspect was unavailable to testify at trial, reasoning that Hemphill’s own presentation of evidence and argument tending to implicate the prior suspect of the crime rather than Hemphill had “opened the door” and necessitated the introduction the reasonably reliable statement of the prior suspect.

On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed Hemphill’s conviction and remanded his case for a new trial. The admission of the transcript violated Hemphill’s Sixth Amendment confrontation right, and no valid exception applied. The Court rejected its previous “reliability” exception to the confrontation requirement—drawn from Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U.S. 56 (1980)—clarifying that the only real exception permitted was in the case of an unavailable witness whom the defendant had already had an opportunity to cross-examine on the same matter. The Court also rejected the assertion that the “opening the door rule” applied in the context of the Confrontation Clause.

Justice Alito concurred in the judgement but wrote separately to reiterate that a defendant’s right to confrontation can be waived either expressly, or impliedly—by failing to object to evidence in violation of his right or by failing to behave in a way that allows him to remain in the courtroom during the trial.

Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that the Court did not have jurisdiction to review the Sixth Amendment claim since the defendant had not raised it in the New York Court of Appeals. Though Hemphill had cited Crawford in his briefing, Justice Thomas did not consider that sufficient to show that he had pled it adequately in the state court.

On certiorari to the Court of Appeals of New York
Opinion by Sotomayor, joined by Roberts, Breyer, Alito, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett
Concurrence by Alito, joined by Kavanaugh
Dissent by Thomas

Click here to read the opinion

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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