Sixth Amendment Right of Confrontation in Maryland

horses-4-1208472-mIn a recent case, a man was shot and killed in the Malaska family’s front yard. The Malaskas and their neighbors (an unmarried couple) disagreed about their adjacent rural property. The couple used their property as a horse pasture. Both parties claimed they were the owners of trees that were between the pasture and the Malaska property. The man posted a “No Trespassing” sign in that area.

When they saw the sign, some of the Malaskas tore it up and threw the pieces into the man’s front lawn, which led to verbal fighting and a physical fight. As the fight was finishing up, the defendant (a 69-year-old Malaska family member) fired a shot from a rifle. The man’s girlfriend dropped to the ground while the man ran in the opposite direction and another person hid behind a tree. The defendant shot the man in the back and it punctured his aorta, killing him. Someone later testified that he was shouting “Die” and obscenities at the victim when he shot him.

The defendant testified as to a different version of events in which the girlfriend was beating his son with a cane and the man hitting his son with fists. He fired a warning shot because his son was sitting limp with his arms down. This led to one of the men, not the victim, saying “Do you want a piece of this?” and charging him. He claimed the shots prompted the victim to run and testified he didn’t know he had killed the victim.

At the police station, he was read his Miranda rights and waived them in writing. During the interrogation, he mentioned needing an attorney, but when one was offered he said he wanted to make a statement right away.

Before trial, he moved to suppress his statements during the interrogation on the basis that he had invoked his right to counsel during the interrogation. The trial court denied the motion.

Meanwhile an autopsy report confirmed the victim had died via homicide from the gunshot wound. Malaska filed a motion in limine claiming that unless the doctor who prepared the report testified, his Sixth Amendmnt right of confrontation would be violated. The trial court denied this motion and the doctor did not testify.

Malaska was tried for second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter before a jury. The State argued that he had intentionally shot and killed the neighbor. The autopsy report was admitted. Twelve witnesses testified for the prosecution. Seven witnesses testified for Malaska. Malaska’s theory was that he had fired shots at another man in self-defense and accidentally killed the victim. He did not intend to kill the victim.

The jury convicted the defendant of voluntary manslaughter, but it acquitted him on the second-degree murder charge. He was sentenced to eight years incarceration. Malaska appealed on a number of grounds. He argued among other things that the trial court should not have admitted the autopsy report because one of the doctors had not testified. He argued this violated his Sixth Amendment right to be confronted with the witnesses against him.

The Sixth Amendment right to confrontation applies when (1) a challenged out-of-court statement is presented as truth or when (2) the challenged out-of-court statement bears indicia of solemnity. The appellate court explained that if these conditions were met, the statement could not be introduced unless the declarant was unavailable to testify as a witness at trial and the defendant had the opportunity to cross-examine that witness before trial.

Malaska believed he had been prejudiced because the autopsy report established the victim died of a gunshot wound to his back and concluded he had died of homicide and suggested he had testified inaccurately about the timing of the victim running.

The appellate court found that the two-prong test was met, implicating the Sixth Amendment right. However, it concluded that it did not violate Malaska’s Sixth Amendment right. The report and its contents were not sufficiently “testimonial.”

A statement is testimonial if it was made under circumstances that would lead an objective witness to believe it would b used for trial later. The court found it testimonial, but then looked at whether the doctor who had testified was the proper witness through which to admit the report. Malaska argued that the doctor who testified had played little role in the autopsy dissection and the other doctor should have testified instead.

The appellate court found that the trial testimony showed that the doctor who testified had been the lead person or supervisor involved in the autopsy. Both the supervisor and assistant did not have to testify to satisfy the Sixth Amendment in this case. For this and other reasons, the conviction was affirmed.

If you are arrested or charged with a crime, you should consult with an experienced Maryland criminal defense attorney. We will develop the best strategy we can to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

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