WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court upheld a rape conviction on Monday over objections that the defendant did not have the chance to question the reliability of the DNA evidence that helped convict him.
The court’s 5-to-4 ruling went against a run of high court decisions that bolstered the right of criminal defendants to confront witnesses against them.
Justice Clarence Thomas provided the margin of difference in the case to uphold the conviction of Sandy Williams, even though Thomas has more often sided with defendants on the issue of cross-examination of witnesses.
The case grew out of a DNA expert’s testimony that helped convict Williams of rape. The expert testified that Williams’s DNA matched a sample taken from the victim, but the expert played no role in the tests that extracted genetic evidence from the victim’s sample.
No one from the company that performed the analysis showed up at the trial to defend it.
The court has previously ruled that defendants have the right to cross-examine the forensic analysts who prepare laboratory reports used at trial.
In this case, the state of Illinois said that the DNA expert who matched the two samples played the critical role - even though she did not actually extract the DNA samples and conduct the tests - and that she testified and was subjected to a thorough cross-examination.
The court split into three factions in this case. Four justices - Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, and Anthony Kennedy - joined in a strong opinion that would give prosecutors more leeway in using lab reports without having to put the analysts who prepared them on the witness stand.
Four others - Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Antonin Scalia, and Sonia Sotomayor - said the Constitution does not permit the use of the lab analysis that helped convict Williams.
In the middle was Thomas, writing only for himself, but controlling the outcome of the case. Thomas said the lab report used in this case could not be considered testimonial and so does not fall under the Constitution’s cross-examination requirement.
The report “lacks the solemnity of an affidavit or deposition, for it is neither a sworn nor a certified declaration of fact,’’ Thomas said. It may be used at trial, but the judge who presided at Williams’ bench trial in the absence of a jury did not have to lend it much credence.
In her opinion, Kagan said the court muddied the issue in this case. The importance of the decision “is, to be frank, who knows what,’’ she said.
The Obama administration, 42 states, and several local prosecutors had warned that a ruling for Williams could make it much harder for scientific experts to testify about their professional opinions, a common occurrence at criminal trials.
A brief filed by the Manhattan district attorney and New York City medical examiner warned that as many as 12 employees might have to testify to allow for the use of DNA profiles.
In another decision Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the government must fully reimburse Native American tribes for money they spent on federal programs.
The federal government had agreed to reimburse money tribes spent on programs like law enforcement, environmental protection and agricultural assistance, but Congress capped the amount of money earmarked for that reimbursement. The tribes sued, and the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver said the money must be fully reimbursed.
The high court said the Ramah Navajo Chapter and other Native American tribes must get their money back.
Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion for Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Kagan. Roberts, and Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito dissented.
The court is scheduled to issue the final nine rulings in its nine-month term by the end of next week, including decisions on the Obama health care overhaul, the Arizona’s immigration law, and on the Federal Communications Commission’s crackdown on indecent programming.
The justices will release opinions on Thursday and June 25 and will probably add days to their calendar next week.
While the health care case could come on any of those days, the court often issues its most divisive decisions at the very end of its term.
Twenty-six states and a small-business trade group have challenged the health care law.