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Opening the Door Does Not Circumvent the Confrontation Clause

On January 20, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States, in an 8-1 decision, refused to create an exception to the Confrontation Clause when a criminal defendant “opens the door” to such testimonial statements.

In 2006, a stray 9-millimeter bullet killed a 2-year-old child in the Bronx. The State of New York charged Nicholas Morris with the murder, but after trial commenced, it offered him a plea deal for a lesser charge. The State specifically required Morris to admit to a new charge of possession of a .357-magnum revolver, not the 9-millimeter handgun originally charged in the indictment and used in the killing.

Years later, the State prosecuted Darrell Hemphill for the same murder. At trial, Hemphill pursued a third-party culpability defense by blaming Morris for the shooting. Morris was outside the United States and not available to testify. The trial court allowed the State to introduce parts of the transcript of Morris’ plea allocution as evidence to rebut Hemphill's theory that Morris committed the murder. The court reasoned that Hemphill's arguments and evidence had opened the door to the introduction of these testimonial out-of-court statements, not subjected to cross-examination, because they were reasonably necessary to correct the misleading impression Hemphill had created.

The Supreme Court held that the trial court's admission of the transcript of Morris’ plea allocution over Hemphill's objection violated Hemphill's Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him. The Court reasoned that, for Confrontation Clause purposes, it was not for the judge to determine whether Hemphill's theory that Morris was the shooter was unreliable, incredible, or otherwise misleading in light of the State's proffered, unconfronted plea evidence. Nor, under the Clause, was it the judge's role to decide that this evidence was reasonably necessary to correct that misleading impression. Such inquiries are antithetical to the Confrontation Clause.