The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with a murder defendant who the justices found was denied his constitutional right to confront a key witness that prosecutors had relied on to secure his conviction.
The ruling marks the first time the justices weighed in on a controversial legal doctrine that critics say has long given prosecutors a loophole to introduce evidence that would otherwise be barred from reaching a jury.
The court's 8-1 ruling returns the case to New York state court, where defendant Darrell Hemphill was convicted of second-degree murder and handed a prison sentence of 25 years to life for the 2006 shooting death of a 2-year-old killed by a stray bullet during a Bronx street fight.
The majority ruled that the trial judge violated Hemphill's rights by allowing the jury to consider uncontested hearsay testimony from witness Nicholas Morris in order to rebut what the judge viewed as a misleading defense argument.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented on jurisdictional grounds. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate concurring opinion that was joined by fellow conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
At Hemphill's trial, his lawyers sought to paint Morris as the triggerman. In response, the trial judge determined the defense team's legal theory had "opened the door" to admitting prior testimony by Morris that cast doubt on his role as the shooter. But because Morris was unavailable to testify at trial, Hemphill was unable to cross-examine him.
In a 15-page opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the majority ruled that the judge's admission of Morris's unchallenged testimony, based on the "door-opening" doctrine, had violated Hemphill's constitutional right to confront witnesses against him.
The majority ruled that the Sixth Amendment's "confrontation clause" ensures that defendants can test "the reliability and veracity" of incriminating evidence through cross-examination. The Constitution does not leave this determination up to a judge, they held.
"The trial court's admission of unconfronted testimonial hearsay over Hemphill's objection, on the view that it was reasonably necessary to correct Hemphill's misleading argument, violated that fundamental guarantee," Sotomayor wrote.
Jeffrey Fisher, a Stanford Law School professor who represented Hemphill, hailed the ruling and said its impact was already felt by some members of the defense bar.
"We're super excited to see the court hold that his right to a fair trial was violated, and that he presumably should get a new trial," said Fisher, who directs Stanford's Supreme Court litigation clinic.
"Already this morning I've gotten emails from public defender friends in various jurisdictions saying 'this is so great, this is going to really help us' - in places where I didn't even know there were published decisions on this issue," he said.