High Court Rules on 911 Calls as Evidence

The Supreme Court rules that some 911 calls may be used as evidence when domestic abuse victims testify in court. But in a related case, the court refused to allow a jury to hear a sworn statement given to police by an abuse victim after the crisis was over.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that some 911 calls may be used as evidence when domestic abuse victims will not testify in court. But in a related case, the Court also refused to allow a jury to hear a sworn statement given to police by an abuse victim after the crisis was over.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the legal principles that separate the two rulings.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

When Adrian Davis stood trial on domestic abuse charges in Washington State, his girlfriend didn't take the stand to testify against him. But the jury heard her voice clearly identifying Davis to a 911 operator.

(Soundbite of 911 call)

Unidentified Woman #1: Listen to me carefully. Do you know his last name?

Unidentified Woman #2: It's Davis.

Unidentified Woman #1: Davis? Okay. What's his first name?

Unidentified Woman #2: Adrian.

Unidentified Woman #1: What is it?

Unidentified Woman #2: Adrian.

Unidentified Woman #1: Adrian?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: That tape was enough to convict Davis. His lawyers protested. They said the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees defendants the right to question their accusers, and you can't cross-examine a recording.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court resolved the apparent conflict by saying the tape could be used in court. The justices unanimously said that a 911 call in an emergency is not a testimony. That ruling is a setback for Timothy O'Toole who works in Washington, D.C.'s Public Defenders Office.

Mr. TIMOTHY O'TOOLE (Public Defender, District of Columbia): Really, if juries are going to decide questions of guilt and innocence, they ought to be able to see the witnesses, and the defendant ought to have the ability to cross-examine those witnesses in front of juries.

SHAPIRO: But the ruling was not a total loss for defense lawyers. Ronald Sullivan teaches criminal law at Yale.

Professor RONALD S. SULLIVAN JR. (Professor of Law, Yale University): The Court hedged a bit. The Court said in this particular case, this particular 911 call was sufficient to come in evidence in the absence of a live witness. But the Court left open whether all 911 calls are admissible in evidence.

SHAPIRO: The central question is whether the victim's statements are made during or after an emergency. UCLA law Professor Christine Littleton says that's consistent with other exceptions to the right of defendants to confront their accusers.

Professor CHRISTINE LITTLETON (Professor of Law, UCLA): The idea is when it's actually happening, you're excited; you're unlikely to be constructing a big lie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LITTLETON: Right? Whereas if you're calm and say it later, who knows?

SHAPIRO: The Court decided in another very similar case yesterday, with one significant difference. In that case, a woman told police about being beaten by her husband, but the conversation between victim and police took place just after the danger had passed. In an eight to one ruling, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting, the Court said that evidence should not be admitted.

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said a sworn affidavit is essentially the same as witness testimony, and fundamentally different from a woman who's answering questions in the middle of a crisis to save herself.

Yesterday's decision could be called a partial win for people who represent victims of domestic abuse. James Whisman prosecuted Adrian Davis in the 911 case.

Mr. JAMES M. WHISMAN (Attorney, Seattle, Washington): There are lots of cases where victims make calls while a domestic violence incident is ongoing, or while they're being assaulted, or looking out their bedroom window and watching a shooting down on the street, and that sort of thing. And that's all significant, valuable evidence that we should be able to use that will be protected by this decision.

SHAPIRO: The decision also acknowledges that prosecutors have to deal with witness intimidation in these sorts of cases. Whisman says his office is on top of that. They've even recorded one alleged abuser calling the victim's family to say if you can just keep her away from court on this one day, then I'm home free.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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