Confronting your accuser

It was largely fiction, of course. They had to reach far back into the career of railroad lawyer Abe Lincoln to find a case in which he’d defended a pair of farmers accused of manslaughter.

But in the 1939 film “Young Mr. Lincoln,” screenwriter Lamar Trotti and legendary director John Ford — and a young actor named Henry Fonda — taught an entire generation the usefulness of the constitutional right to “confront one’s accusers,” years before Raymond Burr ever made a televised fool of William Talman.

In the film, there was an eyewitness. Under questioning by young attorney Lincoln, Ward Bond’s character explains he was too far away to interfere with the killing, but insists he could see the defendant clearly because it was “moon bright” that night.

The defense attorney produces an almanac. Turns out there’d been a new moon that night — it wasn’t “moon bright” at all. Why, the only way the supposed witness could have seen the crime … is if he’d committed it, himself!

Real life justice is seldom as gratifying.

Take the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday, in a California case involving this same Sixth Amendment right of the accused “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

Back in 2000, Brenda Avie told Los Angeles police that her boyfriend, Dwayne Giles, had pulled a knife and threatened to kill her. Several weeks later, Ms. Avie returned to Giles’ home. After a brief exchange of words, Giles shot her six times and fled the scene.

Police arrested Giles, charged him with the crime, and used his late girlfriend’s earlier statements to police against him at trial. Giles was convicted. His lawyers appealed.

The courts have ruled defendants cannot benefit by killing those who threaten to testify against them — witnesses eliminated in that manner are allowed to “testify from the grave,” as it were, through their previous sworn statements or videotaped testimony. But that wasn’t the case here, lawyers argued.

On Wednesday, the high court agreed.

“We decline to approve an exception to the Confrontation Clause unheard of at the time of the founding or for 200 years thereafter,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the 6-3 majority.

Wednesday’s decision may indeed seem like hair-splitting. But the rigor of the court in protecting these procedural safeguards — even in cases with highly unsympathetic defendants — is vital if we’re not to find those protections gradually whittled down to meaninglessness, on the mischievous claim of “greater convenience to police and prosecutors.”

The court has not ruled that convict Giles is immune from prosecution — only that he must be tried on testimony that his attorneys are free to confront and challenge.

This may not be a popular ruling. But it’s a correct and principled one.

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