Idaho v. Wright

PETITIONER: Idaho
RESPONDENT: Laura Lee Wright
LOCATION: Intermountain Hospital

DOCKET NO.: 89-260
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: Idaho Supreme Court

CITATION: 497 US 805 (1990)
ARGUED: Apr 18, 1990
DECIDED: Jun 27, 1990
GRANTED: Jan 16, 1990

ADVOCATES:
James Thomas Jones - on behalf of the Petitioner
Rolf Michael Kehne - on behalf of the Respondent
William C. Bryson - as amicus curiae, supporting the Petitioner

Facts of the case

Laura Lee Wright and her ex-husband Louis Wright had jointly agreed that they would share custody of their daughter, while her half-sister would live with her parents, Laura Lee Wright and Robert Giles. In November 1986, when the girls were five years old and two years old, respectively, the older daughter told Cynthia Goodman, a friend of Louis Wright’s, that Giles had sexually assaulted her while Laura held her down and covered her mouth. The girl also said that she had seen the same thing happen to her younger sister. Goodman reported this information to the police and took the girl to the hospital where Dr. John Jambura examined her. Dr. Jambura found conditions highly suggestive of sexual intercourse that had occurred two or three days previously. Laura Wright and Giles were jointly charged with two counts of lewd conduct with a minor.

During the trial, the court conducted a voir dire examination of the younger daughter, aged three years at the time of the trial, to determine whether she was capable of testifying. The court found, and the parties agreed, that she was not. Over the objection of the defense, the court allowed Dr. Jambura to testify to certain statements the younger daughter made during the examination. Laura Wright and Giles were convicted on both counts, and they appealed on the conviction regarding the conduct with the younger daughter. They argued that the trial court erred in admitting the hearsay testimony of Dr. Jambura. The Idaho Supreme Court held that the admission of the hearsay testimony violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment because the testimony did not fall under a hearsay exception and the interview in question lacked procedural safeguards. The Idaho Supreme Court also noted that children are highly susceptible to suggestion and can easily be influenced by leading questions. Because the Idaho Supreme Court was not convinced that the jury would have reached the same conclusion had the testimony been excluded, it reversed the conviction.

Question

Does the admission at trial of hearsay testimony made by a child to an examining pediatrician violate the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment?

Media for Idaho v. Wright

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 18, 1990 in Idaho v. Wright

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 89-260, Idaho against Laura Lee Wright.

General Jones.

You may proceed whenever you're ready.

James Thomas Jones:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

We are here today because the Idaho Supreme Court has misread the requirements of the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment.

By imposing three rigid preconditions to the admissibility of hearsay statements of unavailable child witnesses, the court has made it almost impossible to get this kind of evidence into the fact-finding process.

In essence, the court has held that the confrontation clause requires the hearsay declarations of child sex abuse witnesses to be videotaped, the product of non-leading, open-ended questions and elicited by an interviewer with no preconception of what the child should be disclosing.

The State of Idaho submits that this three-part test cannot be sustained by a reasonable reading of the confrontation clause, and that it is in fact in conflict with the purpose of the clause to advance the accuracy of the truth determining process in criminal trials.

In its effort to protect the confrontation rights of the defendant, the court has made it extremely difficult to get reliable hearsay statements made by child victims and witnesses before the trial courts.

And of course that is evidence that is critical in many of these cases.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

General Jones, may I ask, initially there were two counts, were there not?

James Thomas Jones:

Yes.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

And the conviction under the first count was reversed, was it?

James Thomas Jones:

The conviction for the lewd conduct with the younger daughter was reversed.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Yes.

James Thomas Jones:

The conviction for lewd conduct with the older daughter, the five-and-a-half-year old, was not appealed from.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Well, at some stage, and I'm not quite clear from the record when, the second count was dismissed, was it not?

James Thomas Jones:

No, Your Honor, the second count was not dismissed.

Laura Lee Wright is in the state penitentiary on her conviction on the count of molesting the five-and-a-half-year old.

The count of molesting the two-and-a-half-year old is before the Court.

The conviction was reversed on that count.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

And that's before us, is it?

James Thomas Jones:

That is the count that is before the Court at this point.

William H. Rehnquist:

Now, was there a dismissal on the... by the local prosecutor after the remand from the Supreme Court of Idaho, and then that dismissal was vacated?

James Thomas Jones:

Oh, I see what you're getting at.

After... after the Court granted certiorari, we found out that the prosecutor and the defense counsel had gone into the court and had stipulated for a dismissal in exchange for an agreement that had to do with termination of the parental rights of Mrs. Wright to the two-and-a-half-year old daughter.

The matter was brought to the attention of the trial court.

There was a hearing--

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Well was that... was on that motion to reinstate the count two?

James Thomas Jones:

--That is correct.