April 29th. As reported earlier, today the United States Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Kansas Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision. The case of Kansas v. Ventris revolved around whether prosecutors could use evidence gained in admitted violation of the 6th Amendment right to counsel to impeach a defendants testimony at trial (i.e. where a defendant claimed one thing in their testimony, could the prosecution bring otherwise inadmissible evidence in to show that the defendant was likely lying). The Kansas Supreme Court had said “No”, the U.S. Supreme Court said “Yes”.
Donnie Ray Ventris and Rhonda Theel were involved in the (decidedly murky) killing of Ernest Hicks in 2004. They left his property with $300 and his truck. After a tip-off police arrested the pair, but charges against Theel were dropped in return for her testimony that Ventris had shot Hicks. While in police custody, Ventris was placed in a cell with Johnny Doser, who had agreed to act as an informant. Doser was to testify at trial that Ventris admitted shooting Hicks. Ventris was charged with aggravated burglary and felony murder and chose to testify in his defense that Theel was the shooter. His attorney successfully objected to Doser’s testimony on the grounds that Doser’s presence in the cell amounted to uncounselled interrogation in violation of the 6th amendment. The State conceded this, but convinced the trial court to allow Doser to testify to impeach Ventris’ own testimony. The jury acquitted Ventris of murder but convicted him of aggravated burglary, which conviction was vacated by the Kansas Supreme Court in its State v. Ventris decision.
Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision reverses this. Justice Scalia’s brief opinion contains two principle holdings. The first of these concerns when the 6th Amendment violation took place in this case. The second concerns what the appropriate remedy is for the violation. In her dissent in the State case, former Chief Justice Kay McFarland had suggested that there had been no 6th Amendment violation at all here. The State of Kansas did not raise this argument before the Supreme Court, and Justice Scalia’s opinion assumes (without ruling on the matter) that what happened did violate the 6th.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision found that the 6th Amendment was violated when Doser spoke with Ventris in the cell. As such, the violation had already occurred by the time of the trial. Ventris’ lawyers had argued that the violation of the right to counsel persisted into the trial itself at the point that the evidence was admitted since the evidence gathered while Ventris was without a lawyer prevented effective assistance of counsel. Justice Scalia rejects this, stating “A defendant is not denied counsel merely because the prosecution has been permitted to introduce evidence of guilt—even evidence so overwhelming that the attorney’s job of gaining an acquittal is rendered impossible.”
Having determined that the violation was already past at the time of the trial, the U.S. Supreme Court determined what the proper remedy would be. As suggested by the State of Kansas it draws analogies here with the 4th Amendment exclusionary rule which prevents admission of evidence found during an unreasonable search or seizure from being admitted, except where a defendant testifies to something that can be directly contradicted by raising the excluded evidence. The Court applied the same test that results in this rule (which balances the interests of preventing perjury against the deterrant effect the rule has against police misconduct) arriving at the same result: the evidence can be admitted for impeachment purposes. Justice Scalia notes that the deterrant effect is still present – since it would be easier to abide by the rules than gather inadmissable evidence of this sort in the hope that the defendant puts themself on the stand thus allowing impeachment evidence to be presented.
Accordingly the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision was reversed.
Justice Stevens (joined by Justice Ginsburg) dissented, arguing that allowing the State to benefit in any way from evidence gained in violation of a constitutional right weakens the deterrent effect of exclusionary rules and weakens the adversarial process at trial and the essential fairness it creates. Justice Stevens was also in dissent in the 1990 case of Michigan v. Harvey which allowed the admission of this kind of evidence under different circumstances. In that case he was joined by three other Justices rather than only one.