Giles v. California

LOCATION:U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay

DOCKET NO.: 07-6053
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of California

CITATION: 554 US 353 (2008)
GRANTED: Jan 11, 2008
ARGUED: Apr 22, 2008
DECIDED: Jun 25, 2008

Donald E. De Nicola – argued the cause for the respondent
Marilyn G. Burkhardt – argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

When Dwayne Giles was tried in state court for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, he claimed self-defense. Giles stated that he had heard her vow to hurt him and a friend, and that she had previously shot a man and threatened people with knives. The prosecution then introduced evidence of a conversation between Giles’ ex-girlfriend and police in which she claimed that he had assaulted her and threatened to kill her. The district court eventually convicted Giles of murder.

On appeal, Giles argued that use of the police conversation violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him, namely, his deceased ex-girlfriend. The California Supreme Court held that Giles had waived this right because he was the cause of his ex-girlfriend’s absence. Although this exclusion was justified under common law rules of “forfeiture by wrongdoing”, the Supreme Court had greatly constrained the admissibility of such evidence in its 2004 holding inCrawford v. Washington.Crawford essentially wiped out the admissibility of such out-of-court statements unless the testimony could be subject to cross-examination at trial, an option that would be impossible under these circumstances. This case gives the Court an opportunity to expand on its decision inCrawford and to apply it to a situation where the wrongdoing that kept the witness from appearing in court was not motivated by a desire to prevent the witness’ testimony.


Are a criminal defendant’s rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment violated when the common law “forfeiture by wrongdoing” doctrine is applied to allow out-of-court statements made by a witness, absent due to the defendant’s own conduct, into evidence without giving defendant an opportunity to cross-examine the absent witness?

Media for Giles v. California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 22, 2008 in Giles v. California

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 25, 2008 in Giles v. California

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has our opinion this morning in case 07-6053 Giles versus California.

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on the writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of California.

The petitioner Dwayne Giles was tried in California State Court for shooting to death his ex-girlfriend, Brenda Avie.

Giles claimed that he had acted in self defense.

To cast doubt on this account, prosecutor’s sought to introduce into evidence statements that Avie had made to a police officer, about three weeks before the shooting in which she had said the Giles had accused her of having an affair and then choked and punched her, and threatened her with a knife.

The trial court allowed these statements to come into evidence over Giles’s objection.

A jury convicted Giles of first-degree murder and he appealed, claiming among other things that the admission of Avie’s statements violated his Sixth Amendment right to be confronted with the witnesses against him.

California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court affirmed Giles’ conviction.

They concluded that although the Sixth Amendment of our constitution ordinarily requires that defendants have the opportunity to confront and cross-examine the witnesses who give testimony against them, Giles forfeited his constitutional objection to the introduction of un-confronted testimony from Avie because he committed the murder for which he was on trial.

And it was this criminal act that made Avie unavailable to testify.

We granted certiorari and in an opinion filed with the clerk today.

We vacate the judgment of the California Supreme Court and remand for further proceedings.

The Sixth Amendment provides that, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

This provision aims to prevent criminal defendants from being convicted on the basis of evidence that the founding generation regarded as unreliable.

It does not admit of open-ended exceptions to be established by the Courts.

We have therefore held that a defendant maybe convicted based on the testimony of a witness whom the defendant did not have the opportunity to cross-examine only when the testimony falls within an exception to the confrontation right that was established when the Sixth Amendment was adopted.

There was at that time no exception to the confrontation right sweeping in every case in which in the view of the judge, a defendant committed an intentional act that rendered a witness unavailable to testify.

Common-law courts did recognize a doctrine of forfeiture by wrongdoing but it was much narrower in scope.

They allowed the introduction of statements by an absent witness who was “detained” or “kept away” by the “means or procurement” of the defendant.

Cases and treatises before and after the founding indicate that this rule applied only when the defendant engaged in conduct designed to prevent a witness from testifying.

Thus, where the evidence at a murder trial indicated the defendant murdered the victim but for the purpose of preventing testimony.

Courts routinely excluded the murdered victim’s un-confronted testimony unless it fell within a separate exception to the confrontation rule for statements of a speaker who was both on the brink of death and was aware that he was dying.

Not only was the broad forfeiture rule that the state advocates here not established at the time of the founding but it has not been established in this country since the founding.

We have identified no decision before 1985 invoking forfeiture as a basis for admitting the testimony of an absent witness unless the defendant engaged in conduct intended to prevent the witness from testifying.

The federal rules of evidence which we have previously described as codifying the forfeiture doctrine also require this kind of specific intent.

As to all but one of the state evidentiary codes that contain forfeiture exceptions to their hearsay rules.

There’s nothing mysterious about the limits of the forfeiture exception to confrontation, unless Courts admitted un-confronted testimony when a defendant took acts aimed at preventing a witness from testifying, defendants would have an intolerable incentive to bribe, intimidate, or even kill witnesses against them.

But beyond this carve out necessary to protect the integrity of judicial proceedings, the notion that judges may strip the defendant of a right that the Constitution deems essential to a fair trial, on the basis of a prior judicial assessment that the defendant is guilty as charged does not sit well with the right to trial by jury.

It is akin, one might say, to “dispensing with jury trial because a defendant is obviously guilty.”

While states may not abridge the constitutional rights of criminal defendants in order to combat domestic violence, it is true and this was a domestic violence case.

Antonin Scalia:

It is true that acts of domestic violence are often intended to dissuade a victim from resorting to outside help.

Prior abuse or threats of abuse meant to dissuade the victim from seeking help would be highly relevant in assessing whether a subsequent act of wrongdoing was intended to prevent a victim from giving testimony.

The state courts did not consider Giles’s intent because they found intent irrelevant to the forfeiture exception to the confrontation guarantee.

This view of the law was error, but the state courts are free to consider evidence of the defendant’s intent on remand.

The judgment of the California Supreme Court is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Justice Thomas has filed a concurring opinion as has Justice Alito.

Justice Souter has filed an opinion concurring in part in which Justice Ginsburg has joined.

Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Stevens and Kennedy have joined.