Ohio Supreme Court: Prosecutions’ Use of Autopsy Report Did Not Violate Confrontation Rights

The Ohio Supreme Court has held that the admission of an autopsy report into evidence at trial does not violate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment confrontation rights.

The case is State v. Maxwell, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-1019.

The Defendant had been sentenced to death for the murder of his girlfriend.

In 2005, the Defendant had assaulted his girlfriend.  She sought a protection order and was asked to testify before the grand jury.  The Defendant attempted to get her to change her story.  When she said that she had just told the truth, the Defendant told a friend, that “the bitch was going to make him kill her.”  He later shot her in view of her child.

A medical examiner with the Cuyahoga County coroner’s office, conducted the victim’s autopsy.  He concluded that she had died from gunshot wounds of the head and that the death was a homicide.

The defendant argued that his constitutional right of confrontation was violated when the court allowed another doctor, who did not conduct the autopsy, to testify about the autopsy results at the trial.

The Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause provides, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be   confronted with the witnesses against him . . .”  This means that an out-of-court statement of a witness who does not appear at trial is in most circumstances prohibited.

The Confrontation clause applies only to “testimonial statements.”  Which are statements made under circumstances which would lead an objective witness reasonably to believe that the statement would be available for use at a later.

In this case, the court concluded that a substitute examiner, on direct examination, may at least testify as to his or her own expert opinions and conclusions regarding the autopsy and the victim’s death.   The court also concluded that an autopsy report was a no testimonial business record and that its admission did not impinge on a defendant’s confrontation rights.  The court explained:

Autopsy reports are not intended to serve as an “out-of-court substitute for trial testimony.” Instead, they are created “for the primary purpose of documenting cause of death for public records and public health.”  . . . .

Although autopsy reports are sometimes relevant in criminal prosecutions . . . they are not created primarily for a prosecutorial purpose.  . . . other courts have held that coroners are statutorily empowered to investigate unnatural deaths and authorized to perform autopsies in a number of situations, only one of which is when a death is potentially a homicide.

 

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