Watching any crime show may lead us to believe that a court case can be resolved in an hour. As anyone who has been to court knows, this idea is very far from the truth. Would you believe that a court case has increased the amount of time need to get lab results from months to years?
Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachusetts is a United States Supreme Court case in 2009 in which the high court held that it was a violation of the Sixth Amendment right of confrontation for a prosecutor to submit a chemical drug test report without the in-person testimony of the person who performed the test. Because of this ruling, the State Crime Lab here in North Carolina (and every other state) has a hurdle to jump through because analysts are required to present evidence live rather than in a sworn affidavit. With this mandate, analysts are spending an extraordinary amount of time in court instead of the lab.
According to a report prepared for the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee meeting on Justice and Public Safety in December, analysts spent 2,822 hours in court, or 70 five-day weeks in just one years time. One other important fact is that only 9 percent of this time is spent on the witness stand. The other 91 percent is spent traveling and waiting to be called to the stand. Upon hearing these statistics, one would wonder how we could be efficient in the judicial process. Even if we accept the reasoning in Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachusetts, there is a question of how to properly manage our resources.
Crime laboratory reports may not be used against criminal defendants at trial unless the analysts responsible for creating them are available to give testimony and subject themselves to cross-examination. Criminal defense lawyers may still stipulate that crime lab reports are accurate, fearing that live testimony will only underscore their clients’ guilt. Others, however, may insist on testimony in the hope that the analyst will be unavailable. Still others will now be able to suggest that an analyst’s conclusion was mistaken or inconclusive. The accused have their rights, but will some lawyers use this as a ploy to confuse the jury? While each case’s details are different, having to make sure that an analyst is available hampers the prosecution, and disrupts analysts’ work in the lab.
The average time for processing labs used to take six months to process and now could take up to three years. This is because analysts are spending less time in the lab and much more in court. Other problems are occurring in the court system as well. For example, can the court find the accused, witnesses and other evidence three years after a crime has been committed? All of this makes it harder to be tough on crime because it takes even longer to prosecute. One can make a good argument as to why the Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachusetts ruling is correct, but our state’s analysts are spending too much time going to court. Is there a better way to meet everyone’s needs?