What Happens if Autopsy Reports are Found Testimonial?: The Next Steps to Ensure the Admissibility of These Critical Documents in Criminal Trials

Amato, Dana | January 1, 2017

The Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to confront the witnesses against her. This right to confrontation, known as the Confrontation Clause, applies to hearsay testimony. Therefore, even if a hearsay statement is admissible pursuant to the Federal Rules of Evidence, the Sixth Amendment may prohibit its admission. Whether hearsay runs afoul of the Confrontation Clause depends on whether that hearsay is “testimonial” in nature. However, the Supreme Court has refused to define “testimonial.” Furthermore, what little guidance the Court has released about the correct interpretation of “testimonial” is fractured, conflicting, and confusing. This is especially troubling with respect to forensic hearsay documents because of their importance in criminal trials as well as their ubiquity and variety. Chief among these problematic documents is the autopsy report—an integral and controversial incarnation of forensic hearsay. Due to splits at the state and federal levels regarding the correct interpretation of this rule with respect to autopsy reports, as well as the high-stakes nature of its answer, this Comment argues that it is likely the Court will eventually consider the issue. Furthermore, it predicts that the outcome will be pose problems for prosecutors of murder cases. Therefore, this Comment proposes a solution that might ensure the admissibility of these critical documents in criminal cases even if the Court’s ultimate ruling is problematic.