Confrontation Clause Applies to All Phases of Capital Case, TCP Argues to Supreme Court

In order to realize the Founders’ original intent, the Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses must apply to the penalty phase of a death penalty case, just as much as it does during the initial trial phase, TCP argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed on December 29 asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case of Alejandro Enrique Ramirez Umaña v United States.  Umaña was convicted for the 2007 murder of two brothers in North Carolina, and sentenced to death.

However, the prosecutor’s “cornerstone” for seeking the death penalty was “the commission of three other alleged murders—murders the government sought to prove through the hearsay testimony of law enforcement officials who summarized the interrogations of other suspects in those slayings who, in turn, shifted blame onto Mr. Umaña,” the brief argues.  Because the prosecutors waited to introduce the testimony of Umaña’s alleged involvement in uncharged crimes until the sentencing proceeding, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that Umaña had no constitutional right to cross-examine or otherwise confront the alleged witnesses who made these extremely prejudicial accusations.

TCP’s brief notes that throughout most of nation’s history, determinations of guilt and sentencing were part of the same trial, with the jury responsible for determining the guilt of the accused also responsible for deciding the sentence.  After the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Furman v Georgia  in 1972, splitting capital cases into two parts became common in order to act as a safeguard against arbitrary imposition of a death sentence.

However, the Umaña brief asserts that the bifurcated sentencing schemes designed to meet the requirements of Furman “have inadvertently led to the deprivation of deep-rooted Sixth Amendment confrontation rights, as the formal separation of guilt from punishment created the potential for unconfronted hearsay to be admitted in capital sentencing proceedings.” The execution of Umaña “following a proceeding in which the government presented hearsay testimony inculpating him murders for which has had never been tried or convicted,” the brief states, “would ‘astound the Framers.’”

TCP argues that, because of significant disagreement among state and federal courts about application of the Confrontation Clause to capital cases and because the Umaña case presents, ”without complicating procedural or factual issues, an egregious example of the abuse of admitting testimonial hearsay over a defendant’s objection,” it offers an “ideal vehicle” for the Court to resolve the question.  The Supreme Court will decide later in the year whether or not to accept the case.

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