Luis Melendez-Diaz (hereinafter, the “Petitioner”) has been convicted of being a Massachusetts drug dealer. This took place quite awhile ago. However, his case did not end after trial. There was an appeal. The appeal went on to change the face of Massachusetts criminal trial procedure…to a point.
You see, the Petitioner had a set of his drug convictions overturned by the United States Supreme Court in 2009 when it ruled that a criminal defendant’s right to confront accusing witnesses included certain expert witnesses. These were who prepared paperwork regarding testing such things as guns and drugs. Previously, the Commonwealth simply threw a copy of said experts’ reports in front of the jury and called it a day as to what said reports said (i.e., “Yes, it was indeed heroin”, “The gun really was an operable gun”, etc.).
In its ruling, the Court said that a defendant facing such evidence against him or her had the right to cross-examine a human being, not simply be left with said human’s paperwork. As you might imagine, it is very hard to cross-examine a piece of paper.
In the Petitioner’s first trial in Boston, prosecutors simply filed paperwork saying tests on powder seized from the Petitioner showed they were cocaine. After the successful criminal appeal, the Petitioner was tried a second time and acquitted in February.
The ruling created what became known as the “Mendez-Diaz Rule” and caused a number of cases to be challenged by convicted defendants.
However, all good things must end. Even in criminal justice.
You see, while this may have made more business for Boston criminal lawyers, it also presented a problem for the prosecutors and courts. Over-crowding issues aside, the courts were not ready to simply open the floodgates and allow everybody out of prison.
The Supreme Judicial Court has now put limits on the ruling. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Judicial Court has left intact other of the Petitioner’s convictions for drug dealing as well as the 10-year prison sentence that came with them.
The SJC has now set a limit for the retroactive reach of Melendez-Diaz. This new ruling affects the Petitioner’s earlier convictions. The SJC said it will limit the reach of the Melendez-Diaz case to convictions after June 25, 2009, unless cases older than that have not yet been reviewed by an appeals court.
The Petitioner was arrested in February 2004 in the case this effects. He was convicted in 2005, and had his conviction upheld on appeal in 2007 and in 2008. The US Supreme Court issued its ruling on June 25, 2009. The mathematical result?
The Petitioner does not profit from his famous case a second time.
“We see no fundamental injustice or unfairness in applying Melendez-Diaz as a new rule with prospective effect,” Justice Robert Cordy wrote for the unanimous SJC.
Attorney Sam’s Take On Criminal Appeals And Supreme Court Rulings
When we discuss the criminal justice system in this daily blog, we generally refer to the part before any appeal. If a defendant is acquitted, then there is no appeal. If there is a conviction, however, most criminal defendants appeal the matter.
However, the nature of a criminal appeal, whether state or federal, is not what you might expect.
Generally, appeals courts, including the US Supreme Court and the SJC, do not review matters to review the actual verdict to determine whether the jury or judge below made a mistake while evaluating the facts of a case. Yes, in an extreme case, a court may find that the fact finder below could not, as a matter of law, returned the verdict that came in. However, great deference is given to the trial courts, particularly because it was the trial judge and/or jury who actually saw the evidence as it was presented and is best suited to consider credibility.
“Well, Sam, then what do the appeals courts base their decisions on?”
To answer that, there are two possibilities. I could rush through an explanation that would probably enlighten you to only a small degree, or I could continue this subject matter tomorrow and be a bit more thorough.
Guess which one I am going to opt for…
Yes, this Boston criminal lawyer appreciates the art of suspense.
To view the article upon which this blog is based, please go to http://www.boston.com/Boston/metrodesk/2011/07/sjc-says-man-who-won-supreme-court-case-must-stay-behind-bars-for-conviction/rfxHW69o6whmltXPj0tCHL/index.html