United States v. Owens

PETITIONER:United States
LOCATION:Dickinson School District Superintendent’s Office

DOCKET NO.: 86-877
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)

CITATION: 484 US 554 (1988)
ARGUED: Nov 04, 1987
DECIDED: Feb 23, 1988

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Owens

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 04, 1987 in United States v. Owens

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – February 23, 1988 in United States v. Owens

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No.86-877, United States against Owens will be announced by justice Scalia.

Antonin Scalia:

This case comes to us by writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Respondent, James Owens, an inmate at a federal prison, was convicted of assualt with intent to commit murder in the beating of a prison guard.

The beating left the guard with a severely impared memory.

At Owen’s trial the guard testified that he clearly remembered that while hospitalized following the attack he identifead Owens as his assailant to an FBI agent.

On cross-examination he admitted that he could not remember seeing his assailant and could not remember any other persons who visited him at the hospital.

On appeal a divided panel of Ninth Circuit reverse the conviction finding violations of both the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, and Rule 802 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.

The majority viewed the prison guard’s memory loss as undermining the defendent’s right to cross examine protected by the Constitution and by Federal Rule 802.

We reverse.

As we have repeatedly held, the Confrontation Clause guarantees only an opportunity for effective cross-examination not cross-examination that is effective in whatever way and to whatever extent the defendent might wish.

Such an opportunity is not denied when a witness testifies as to his present or past belief or is unable to remember the reason for that belief.

Since the defense may still bring out facts tending to impune the testimony such as witness’ bias, poor eyesight, lack of attentiveness, and even the very fact that the witness’ memory is not reliable.

The constitional requirement is satisfied in these circumstances by the protections of the oath cross-examination and opportunity for the jury to observe the witness’ dimeanor.

As for the Federal Rules, Rule 802 which generally excludes hearsay contains an exeption for statement of identification if the declarant testifies and is subject to cross-examination concerning the statement in question.

Since this exeption was adopted for the very purpose of reducing barriers to admission of identification testimony caused by memory loss, we are satisfied that the witness was subject to cross-examination within the meaning of the rule in this case.

Justice Brennan has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Marshall joins.

Justice Kennedy took no part in either the consideration or the decision of this case.