Monday, September 5, 2011

The Confrontation Clause


The 6th Amendment Confrontation Clause protects one of the most standard and essential parts of a trial in the United States which is the right to confront witnesses who are testifying against a defendant. In general, this clause guarantees that if a person is charged with a crime and tried in court, the witnesses must appear and make the accusations face to face.

The Confrontation Clause specifically provides:

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right... to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

The Confrontation Clause serves two main purposes. First, it protects the defendant from statements allegedly made outside of the court (hearsay statements) being used against him when he has no opportunity to test or challenge the alleged statement.   Second, the clause gives a defendant the opportunity to cross-examine the witness which allows him to test the memory, accuracy and sincerity of the witness.

As with all legal rules, there are evidentiary exceptions to the right to confront witnesses in a trial such as the many exceptions to hearsay.  Additionally,  there are limits to the extent that a witness may be cross-examined. 

The right to confront witnesses at a criminal trial is an ancient idea that has survived centuries of legal thought.  The roots of the 6th Amendment Confrontation Clause go back far into English and even Roman history. The first mention of issues addressed by the clause appear in the biblical account of the Apostle Paul's trials before he was sent to Rome.   In Acts 25:16, the Roman Governor over Judea was considering what to do with Paul who had been accused of various crimes. The Governor said to King Agrippa, "It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man up to die before the accused has met his accusers face-to-face, and has been given a chance to defend himself against the charges."

In the 1600's, it was common in English courts for alleged statements to be collected outside of court and used as evidence at trial. Defendants often demanded that the witnesses be brought to face them in court, but it rarely happened. Many people were convicted on hearsay evidence and even put to death based on these convictions. 

The Founding Fathers were very familiar with out of court statements being used against people at trial. The British government allowed the colonial vice-admiralty courts to use written statements from witnesses, instead of live testimony, in certain cases. This abuse of the judicial system lead in part to the Revolution. 

The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in order to further protect certain rights from government interference. Among these are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to trial by jury and the right to confront those who are testifying against you, as mentioned in the Confrontation Clause. There is no record of any opposition or discussion regarding the Confrontation Clause, an indication of how essential it was in the minds of the Founding Fathers.

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