June 7, 2010
Silence Confesses Error
The Nevada Supreme Court reversed a conviction for second-degree murder and related offenses due to the State's failure to properly respond to an issue raised on behalf of the appellant:
In this appeal, we have the duty to publicly reiterate the importance of submitting attentive appellate briefs and the unfortunate obligation to address the unforgiving consequences resulting from a respondent’s failure to respond to relevant issues raised on appeal. In his opening brief, appellant...Polk argues that his constitutional right to confrontation under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), and Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U.S. ___, 129 S. Ct. 2527 (2009), was violated when the findings of a gunshot residue analyst who did not testify at trial and was not subject to cross-examination were admitted. In its answering brief, the State failed to directly address the Crawford and Melendez-Diaz issue or argue, alternatively, that any potential constitutional violation was harmless error. Polk argues in his reply that because the State failed to respond to Polk’s alleged constitutional violation, it effectively confessed error under NRAP 31(d). We agree and reverse and remand for a new trial.
The State failed to respond to a critical issue:
We recognize that the State filed a lengthy answering brief addressing Polk’s other issues on appeal; however, the State failed to address Polk’s argument that his constitutional right to confrontation under Crawford and Melendez-Diaz was violated. This is a significant constitutional issue that compels a response. The issue was clearly raised in Polk’s opening brief and reply brief, the argument regarding it collectively consisting of approximately four pages. Melendez-Diaz was decided on June 25, 2009. The State filed its answering brief six weeks later, on September 10, 2009. In Polk’s reply brief, he explicitly referenced the State’s failure to directly address the constitutional issue. Even after being notified of its failure to respond to the Crawford and Melendez-Diaz issue, the State failed to supplement its response and elected to wait until oral argument to address the constitutional issue or harmless error. Such appellate practice causes prejudice to Polk’s ability to adequately prepare for or respond during oral argument.
Accordingly, we grant Polk’s oral motion to exclude the State’s oral argument on the Crawford and Melendez-Diaz issues and disregard the State’s argument. Because the constitutional right to confrontation under Crawford and Melendez-Diaz was repeatedly raised throughout the appeal, but the State failed to address or even assert that any potential violation was harmless error, we invoke our authority under NRAP 31(d) and consider the State’s silence to be a confession of error on this issue.
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