85.7 F
Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, May 30, 2023
HomeNewsArchivesA Criminal Justice Crisis

A Criminal Justice Crisis

June 26, 2009 — A decision of the United States Supreme Court last week has created a crisis in the Virgin Islands criminal justice system. In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts (07-591) (June 25, 2009), the Supreme Court ruled that in criminal cases a defendant has the right to confront the chemists and scientists who prepare crime lab reports. These types of reports include DNA analysis, blood and hair analysis, drug composition/purity determinations, fingerprint comparisons and ballistic evidence. The Court held that the defendant has a right to “confront” the individual who analyzes the evidence, which means that the chemist or scientist must appear in court and be subject to cross examination by the defendant’s attorney. Denial of this right will lead to the reversal of a defendant’s conviction.
The decision has far-reaching consequences for the Territory. In the Virgin Islands, we lack a local crime lab and most forensic evidence must be sent to labs in the Continental United States for analysis. The Supreme Court’s ruling means that in virtually every case involving crime lab-type evidence, the prosecution will have to fly the analyst to the Territory for trial. (This assumes that the analyst is willing to come to the Territory, because our courts do not have the power to compel a person outside of the jurisdiction to travel here.)
There was already a critical need for a local crime lab. The delays in bringing criminal cases to trial because of the inability to get crime lab results have been well-documented and many criminal cases have been dismissed because the results were not received in time for trial. The Melendez-Diaz ruling will introduce a second “opportunity” for delay and will greatly increase the cost of prosecutions (between travel days, travel expenses, and time in court, it will probably cost an additional $5,000 to $10,000 per case to bring in a single expert). And what if the expert is not available? You can expect to see a tremendous upsurge in the number of cases our prosecutors must dismiss because they are unable to go forward without the evidence that is provided from the crime lab.
The Melendez-Diaz decision applies to all pending criminal cases that rely upon crime lab evidence. It is essential that we take immediate steps to confront this crisis or we will be faced with the specter of hundreds of suspects being released due to an inability to go forward with prosecutions.
What can be done? To confront the immediate exigency, our Superior Court should adopt an emergency rule of procedure that requires that a defendant give advance notice of a desire to invoke the right to confront a crime lab analyst. Failure to provide the requisite notice should constitute a waiver of the right of confrontation. Moreover, absent extenuating circumstances, it is critical that in cases where the right is invoked, a definitive trial date be set so that witnesses can be flown in for trial without risk that upon arrival, they will be told that the case was continued. At the same time, the Executive Branch, through the Attorney General’s office and the Police Department, must identify cases where off-island crime lab evidence is critical and take steps to ensure the availability of the experts. Funding must be found to pay the associated costs.
The Legislature must promulgate laws regulating crime labs and crime lab evidence. Long term funding must be provided to build a modern crime lab that allows both analysis and long term storage of evidence (for example, DNA evidence in an unsolved crime should be properly stored so that if a suspect is arrested years after the crime, it can be used to evaluate the suspect’s guilt or innocence).
The community must get behind this issue and demand that our leaders create and implement solutions. There is no time to waste. You can expect lawyers properly representing their clients to immediately invoke the Melendez-Diaz decision and demand to confront crime lab witnesses at trial. If we as a society do not react quickly to the mandate from the U.S. Supreme Court, criminals will avoid justice and we will all suffer the consequences.
Editor’s note: Andrew C. Simpson is a Christiansted lawyer.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Keeping our community informed is our top priority.
If you have a news tip to share, please call or text us at 340-228-8784.

Support local + independent journalism in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Unlike many news organizations, we haven't put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as accessible as we can. Our independent journalism costs time, money and hard work to keep you informed, but we do it because we believe that it matters. We know that informed communities are empowered ones. If you appreciate our reporting and want to help make our future more secure, please consider donating.