right to confront witness

The right to confront a witness is one of the fundamental Constitutional rights that protects the citizens of the United States. The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that any criminal defendant suspected of committing a crime has the right to confront the witness in a criminal action. The right to confront a witness entails the right to be presented at the trial and the right to cross-examine the witnesses presented by the prosecutor. Rule 43 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure deals with the right to be presented at the trial.

Specifically, the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment claims that the person accused of committing a crime can enjoy the right to be confronted with the witness presenting against them. The Confrontation Clause protects the criminal defendant against a conviction without an opportunity for that defendant to test the veracity of the testimony of the witnesses against them in front of the jury. The Confrontation Clause, therefore, safeguards the criminal defendant from a conviction solely based on written evidence, such as an ex parte affidavit.

The Supreme Court of the United States delineated the three essential purposes of the Confrontation Clause in Mattox v. United States:

  1. To allow the criminal defendant to cross-examine any witnesses that testify against them
  2. To make sure that the witnesses testify under oath and provide a reasonable understanding of the seriousness of their testimony within the trial
  3. To provide an opportunity for jurors to evaluate the credibility of the witness by presenting the witness in cross-examination to gauge the personality of the witness

The Supreme Court further established the Confrontation Clause’s role as preserving fairness within the criminal justice system in Lee v. Illinois and upholding Constitutional rights. However, the Supreme Court also stated that there is an overwhelming government interest in protecting law enforcement effectiveness. If the government’s interest in effective law enforcement outweighs the benefits of confronting witnesses for the defendant, then the right to government interest may supersede the right to confront opposing witnesses. In some rare circumstances, the court may deprive the defendant’s right to confront witnesses in cases of the admission of hearsay evidence (Delaney v. United States).

In Barber v. Page, the Supreme Court does indicate that there is a common law exception to the right to confront a witness when:

  1. The witness is currently unavailable
  2. The witness testified against that same defendant
  3. The witness was cross-examined by the same defendant’s party

Crawford v. Washington decision reaffirmed the Supreme Court’s position on the common law exception (“the Framers would not have allowed the admission of testimonial statements of a witness who did not appear at trial unless he was unavailable to testify and the defendant had had a prior opportunity for cross-examination”). However, it is important to note that while there could be exceptions to the right to confront witnesses, the judiciary body cannot deny the criminal defendant’s right to confrontation. For instance, the Supreme Court pointed out that while the Confrontation Clause prefers face-to-face confrontation during the trial, the preference must give way to public policy considerations depending on the specific circumstances of the case. The Supreme Court indicated that in a cross-examination of a child who is a suspected victim of a child abuse case, the judge may allow a one-way closed-circuit cross-examination to prevent serious emotional distress of the child (Maryland v. Craig).

See: Smith v. Illinois, Brookhart v. Janis, Coy v. Iowa, Smith v. Illinois, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts.

[Last updated in March of 2024 by the Wex Definitions Team]