The now infamous defendant Luis Melendez-Diaz has been found not guilty by a Suffolk County jury in a retrial of a cocaine trafficking case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. Melendez-Diaz’s Supreme Court case resulted in a landmark decision affecting evidence in criminal trials around the country. Hundreds, if not thousands, of drug and ballistics related convictions nationally were overturned because of the ruling.
Melendez-Diaz’s appeal of his 2004 cocaine trafficking conviction led to a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2009 that the US Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guaranteed defendants in criminal cases the right to confront forensic experts in court. The Sixth Amendment, in it’s “confrontation clause” states that a criminal defendant has the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The ruling invalidated a Massachusetts law that allowed prosecutors to present forensic experts’ reports as evidence without giving defendants the opportunity to cross-examine the experts.
During the retrial, a chemist from the state Department of Public Health testified that the substance found in the back seat of a police cruiser with Melendez-Diaz and two other men tested “positive for the presence of naturally occurring cocaine.”
“We’re 10 years out from the original incident and the passage of so much time only makes a case tougher to try,” said Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley.
Melendez-Diaz’s luck is not all good, however, he is still currently serving a 10 year sentence in Plymouth County for drug trafficking.
On November 15, 2001, the loss prevention manager of a Dorchester K-Mart store called the Boston police to report that a store employee, Thomas Wright, was engaging in suspicious activities. The manager told the police that Wright would sometimes go for short rides in a blue Mercury Sable sedan after he received or made phone calls, only to return ten minutes later.
That same day, the police set up surveillance in front of the K-Mart. They observed Wright coming out of the store and getting into a blue Mercury Sable sedan. The police also saw that there were two other individuals in the front section of the car, namely the driver, Montero, and the Petitioner, Luis Melendez-Diaz. As Wright was getting out of the car and walking back toward the store, the police stopped and searched him, finding four bags containing a powdery substance. The police arrested all three individuals, and drove them to the police station. On the way to the station, the police observed Melendez-Diaz and Montero whispering in Spanish to each other, and making unusual movements in the back seat. Suspecting foul play, the police later conducted a search of the cruiser that had transported the three men to the station. In the back seat, the police found nineteen plastic bags containing a powdery substance, as well as $320 on the floor of the vehicle. They submitted these bags, as well as the four taken from Wright, to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s State Laboratory Institute for testing. These were analyzed and found to contain 22.16 grams of cocaine. At trial, the plastic bags recovered from Wright and the cruiser and the laboratory reports were introduced as evidence. The jury ultimately found Melendez-Diaz guilty of distributing and trafficking in cocaine.