Whorton v. Bockting

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Opinion [Justice Alito]




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 05–595. Argued November 1, 2006—Decided February 28, 2007

At respondent’s trial for sexual assault on his 6-year-old stepdaughter, the court determined that the child was too distressed to testify and allowed respondent’s wife and a police detective to recount her out-of-court statements about the assaults, as permitted by Nevada law, rejecting respondent’s claim that admitting this testimony would violate the Confrontation Clause. He was convicted and sentenced to prison. On direct appeal, the Nevada Supreme Court found the child’s statements constitutional under Ohio v. Roberts, 448 U. S. 56, then this Court’s governing precedent, which had held that the Confrontation Clause permitted the admission of a hearsay statement made by a declarant unavailable to testify if the statement bore sufficient indicia of reliability, id., at 66. Respondent renewed his Confrontation Clause claim in a subsequent federal habeas petition, which the District Court denied. While his appeal was pending in the Ninth Circuit, this Court overruled Roberts in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U. S. 36, holding that “testimonial statements of witnesses absent from trial” are admissible “only where the declarant is unavailable, and only where the defendant has had a prior opportunity to cross-examine [the witness],” id., at 59, and concluding that Roberts’ interpretation of the Confrontation Clause was unsound, id., at 60. Respondent contended that had Crawford been applied to his case, the child’s statements would not have been admitted, and that it should have been applied because it was either an old rule in existence at the time of his conviction or a “ ‘watershed rul[e] of criminal procedure’ implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding,” Saffle v. Parks, 494 U. S. 484, 495 (quoting Teague v. Lane, 489 U. S. 288, 311 (plurality opinion)). The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Crawford was a new rule, but a watershed rule that applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.

Held: Crawford announced a new rule of criminal procedure that does not fall within the Teague exception for watershed rules. Pp. 8–14.

(a) Under Teague’s framework, an old rule applies both on direct and collateral review, but a new rule generally applies only to cases still on direct review and applies retroactively in a collateral proceeding only if it (1) is substantive or (2) is a watershed rule that implicates “the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding.” Respondent’s conviction became final on direct appeal well before Crawford was decided, and Crawford announced a new rule, i.e., “a rule that … was not ‘dictated by precedent existing at the time the defendant’s conviction became final,’ ” Saffle, supra, at 488. It is flatly inconsistent with Roberts, which it overruled. “The explicit overruling of an earlier holding no doubt creates a new rule.” Saffle, supra, at 488. Prior to Crawford, “reasonable jurists,” Graham v. Collins, 506 U. S. 461, 467, could have concluded that Roberts governed the admission of testimonial hearsay statements made by an unavailable declarant. Pp. 8–9.

(b) Because Crawford announced a new rule and because that rule is procedural and not substantive, it cannot be applied here unless it is a “watershed rul[e]” that implicates “the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding.” This exception is “extremely narrow,” Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U. S. 348, 351, and since Teague, this Court has rejected every claim that a new rule has satisfied the requirements necessary to qualify as a watershed. The Crawford rule does not meet those two requirements. Pp. 10–14..

(1) First, the rule does not implicate “the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding” because it is not necessary to prevent “an ‘ “impermissibly large risk” ’ ” of an inaccurate conviction, Summerlin, supra, at 356. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U. S. 335, the only case that this Court has identified as qualifying under this exception, provides guidance. There, the Court held that counsel must be appointed for an indigent defendant charged with a felony because, when such a defendant is denied representation, the risk of an unreliable verdict is intolerably high. The Crawford rule is not comparable to the Gideon rule. It is much more limited in scope, and its relationship to the accuracy of the factfinding process is far less direct and profound. Crawford overruled Roberts because Roberts was inconsistent with the original understanding of the Confrontation Clause, not because the Crawford rule’s overall effect would be to improve the accuracy of factfinding in criminal trials. With respect to testimonial out-of-court statements, Crawford is more restrictive than Roberts, which may improve the accuracy of factfinding in some criminal cases. But whatever improvement in reliability Crawford produced must be considered together with Crawford’s elimination of Confrontation Clause protection against the admission of unreliable out-of-court nontestimonial statements. It is thus unclear whether Crawford decreased or increased the number of unreliable out-of-court statements that may be admitted in criminal trials. But the question is not whether Crawford resulted in some net improvement in the accuracy of factfinding in criminal cases, but, as the dissent below noted, whether testimony admissible under Roberts is so much more unreliable that, without the Crawford rule, “ ‘the likelihood of an accurate conviction is seriously diminished,’ ” Summerlin, supra, at 352. Crawford did not effect a change of this magnitude. Pp. 11–13..

(2) Second, the Crawford rule did not “alter [this Court’s] understanding of the bedrock procedural elements essential to the fairness of a proceeding,” Sawyer v. Smith, 497 U. S. 227, 242. The Court has “not hesitated to hold that less sweeping and fundamental rules” than Gideon’s do not qualify. Beard v. Banks, 542 U. S. 406, 418. The Crawford rule, while certainly important, is not in the same category with Gideon, which effected a profound and “ ‘sweeping’ ” change. Beard, supra, at 418. Pp. 13–14.

399 F. 3d 1010 and 408 F. 3d 1127, reversed and remanded.

Alito, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.


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