The Appeals court has recently vacated the conviction of defendant Luis Melendez-Diaz.
Diaz was the defendant in a Massachusetts case that was ruled on last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court. The landmark case held that a state forensic lab report prepared for use in a criminal case was testimonial evidence subject to the demands of the Confrontation Clause of the Constitution. The court’s ruling meant that prosecutors must call chemists to the stand before introducing drug certificates.
The Supreme Court ruling did not address whether Melendez-Diaz’s conviction should be reversed, however. The court left that decision up to the Appeals Court. Judge Elspeth B. Cypher, writing on behalf of the court, said that the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. “We conclude that the certificates were of significant importance in the Commonwealth’s case because they were the only evidence of the composition and weight of the substances.”
Because the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, “[t]he improperly admitted certificates cannot be said to have played little or no role in the outcome of the case.”
The only other evidence against the defendant, she wrote, was circumstantial and certainly not overwhelming.
A Suffolk County District Attorney spokesperson stated that his office expects to re-try the case. Mary T. Rodgers, attorney for Melendez-Diaz before the Appeals Court and the Supreme Court argued that the D.A.’s decision “makes no sense” because Melendez –Diaz has almost wrapped up his sentence.
Luis Melendez-Diaz was arrested in 2001 and charged with distribution and trafficking cocaine in Boston, after police received a tip about suspicious activity at a Kmart store. At trial, bags of the cocaine alleged to have been distributed by Melendez-Diaz were introduced into evidence along with drug analysis certificates prepared by the lab technician who analyzed the drugs and identified them as cocaine. A jury convicted Melendez-Diaz of distributing and trafficking cocaine in violation of Massachusetts law. Melendez-Diaz appealed, arguing that the State’s introduction of the drug analysis certificates without a lab technician violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him under the Court’s ruling in Crawford v. Washington. Crawford had held that so-called “testimonial” evidence cannot be introduced at trial unless the defendant has a chance to cross-examine the witness providing the evidence. Melendez-Diaz characterized the lab analysis as testimonial and argued that Crawford required the lab technician to testify on the results. The State argued that Massachusetts had previously held, in Commonwealth v. Verde, that lab reports were not testimonial.
The Massachusetts Court of Appeals rejected Melendez-Diaz’s claims in an unpublished opinion, referring to them in a short footnote as “without merit.” The Massachusetts Supreme Court also denied his appeal.
-Attorney John J. MacLaughlan