Testimonial Hearsay, if reasonably harmless, does not require conviction to be overturned

Introduction

In the case of United States v Garcia [2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 12141], the defendants were accused of number of crimes relating to shooting, robbery and home invasion. The defendants challenged the district court conviction on various grounds, one of which related to the expert testimony. The defendants contested a certain expert opinion which they claimed was hearsay. Thus, they argued, this evidence was erroneously admitted in violation of their Sixth Amendment Rights. The defendants’ argument that their conviction be reversed because the expert testimony of the prosecution affected their Sixth Amendment Confrontation Right, was not accepted by the Court. The Court of Appeals held that even when it is proved that an expert was merely repeating hearsay without any application of expertise, if the expert’s testimony was harmless to the defendants’ case beyond a certain reasonable standard of doubt, the conviction would stand.

Background

The defendants in this case were charged with a number of transgressions, one of which involved a house robbery of Guatemalan immigrants. The prosecution used a gang expert, a former police officer, Shane Webb for explaining various points about the working of gangs to the jury. The lower court had admitted the statements of Webb which the defendants contested were hearsay evidence. The Court explained the position on the Sixth Amendment Confrontation right that made hearsay evidence inadmissible. The crux of the Confrontation right, as laid down in Crawford v. Washington [541 U.S.36, 53-54, 124 S. Ct. 1354, 158 L. Ed. 2d 177 (2004)] is that no evidence that the defendant cannot cross examine should be used to build the prosecution case. On the other hand, Rule 703 of the Federal Rules of Evidence allows the expert to apply his expertise to hearsay evidence and he can use such evidence to reach an opinion. This opinion is admissible even though the evidence it is based on is not. The Court held Rule 703 and the Confrontation right (or alternatively the Crawford principle) could be reconciled and the expert opinion would be treated as an original evidence, open to cross examination by the defendants. If the expert evidence was a mere conduit for hearsay without any expertise being applied, conviction based on such evidence would be reversed. There is exception to this rule of reversal of conviction, i.e. if the evidence itself does not harm the defendants’ case, even it is hearsay, would not affect the conviction.

Discussion

In the light of the above point of law, the Court examined the statements of Shane Webb to decide whether (a) the expert was merely parroting hearsay without any application of skill and (b) the expert’s evidence was harmless beyond reasonable doubt. The Court found that all five of the contested statements were indeed hearsay testimony that the expert recounted from what other gang members had told him. For example, one of the things that Webb had testified on was that the immigrants were targeted by the defendants’ gang because of their diminutive stature. The Court found this dubious but held that since it added little significant value to the prosecution case, it would be considered harmless beyond reasonable doubt. Similarly, other statements were found to be harmless to the defendants’ case. Thus the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of the lower court laying down the principle that a parroted hearsay evidence, if found to be harmless to the defendants’ case, would not be a bar to the conviction.