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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

This Will Be On My Videotape: Supreme Court Denies Cert In Videotape Testimony Case From Iowa

The United States Supreme Court has declined to grant cert in State v. Bentley, 739 N.W.2d 296 (Iowa 2007).  In Bentley, a Cedar Rapids Police Officer and a representative of the Iowa Department of Human Services set up a videotaped  interview between J.G., a ten year-old child, and a counselor at St. Luke's Child Protection Center.  The officer and representative then watched through an "observation window" as J.G. made numerous statements alleging that James Bentley sexually abused her.  Two days later, Bentley was charged in two different counties with sexual abuse in the second degree, and in both cases he moved for a preliminary determination of the admissibility of J.G.'s videotaped interview under the Confrontation Clause.  After a hearing on the motion in limine, the district court held admission of the videotape would violate Bentley's constitutional right to confront a witness against him, and the State filed an application for discretionary review, which the Supreme Court of Iowa granted.

The Supreme Court of Iowa noted that in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), the Supreme Court concluded that tape-recorded statements police officers elicited during a custodial interrogation of the defendant's wife were inadmissible at the defendant's trial pursuant to the Confrontation Clause because they were "testimonial," the declarant was unavailable at trial, and the defendant had no prior opportunity for cross-examination.  The Iowa court then noted that the Supreme Court set out "[v]arious formulations of th[e] core class of 'testimonial' statements" that the Confrontation Clause was intended to address: "ex parte in-court testimony or its functional equivalent," "extrajudicial statements ... contained in formalized testimonial materials," and "statements that were made under circumstances which would lead an objective witness reasonably to believe that the statement[s] would be available for use at a later trial."  The Iowa court further indicated that "[a]lthough the Court did not offer a comprehensive definition of 'testimonial statement,' its opinion noted that even if a 'narrow standard” is used to determine whether statements are testimonial, “[s]tatements taken by police officers in the course of interrogations,” such as the declarant's statements in Crawford are testimonial." 

The court then noted that J.G. was tragically "unavailable" to testify at Bentley's trial (she died before trial) and Bentley had no opportunity to cross-examine her, triggering a Confrontation Clause analysis.  The court then found that the interview of J.G. was essentially a substitute for police interrogation at the station house and that the State did not meet its burden of proving the recorded statements of J.G. were nontestimonial.  Specifically, the Supreme Court of Iowa noted that there indicia of formality surrounding the interviews of J.G. and that the officer was not a mere observer but in fact engaged in mid-interview consultations with the interviewer

The court also rejected the State's argument that J.G. was too young to understand that her statements would be used to prosecute Bentley, finding that "an analysis of the purpose of the statements from the declarant's perspective is unnecessary under the circumstances presented here. J.G.'s testimonial statements lie at the very core of the definition of 'testimonial,' and fall within the category of ex parte examinations against which the Confrontation Clause was directed."  The court also rejected a state's interests argument and concluded that its ruling was in line with the opinions in several other states.

The Attorney General of Iowa then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and 26 state attorneys general filed a friend of the court brief in support, but it was not enough to get the Supremes to grant cert, likely because, it seems to me, the videotaped statements clearly constituted testimonial hearsay.

-CM 

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