High Court Rules in Cases Affecting Victims of Violence

On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two cases affecting victims of domestic and sexual violence. In Giles v. California, the Court ordered a new trial for Dwayne Giles, who had been convicted of the brutal murder of Brenda Avie after a lower court allowed a police officer to testify about the domestic violence charges Avie had filed against Giles a few weeks before she was killed. In Patrick Kennedy v. State of Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot use the death penalty to punish child rapists.

One day later, the Court overturned the District of Columbia’s ban on handgun possession in a ruling that some experts worry may put more guns in the hands of batterers.

Giles v. California

This case is based on an appeal brought by Dwayne Giles, a Californian who was convicted of shooting and killing his former girlfriend, Brenda Avie. Several weeks before the murder, Avie told police that Giles was threatening to kill her.

The California Supreme Court had upheld a lower court decision to allow a police officer to testify about Avie’s report of Giles’ threats, even though Avie was not under oath when she spoke to the officer. Her unsworn allegation, delivered second-hand, would not be admissible if she was alive, because Giles has the right to face Avie in court to challenge her claims. But California’s Supreme Court ruled that the fact that she was murdered justified an exception to the defendant’s right to confront and cross-examine her in court.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. In the six to three ruling, the Justices said that Avie’s second-hand testimony was not admissible because the Sixth Amendment’s “Confrontation Clause” gave Giles the right to challenge Avie’s accusations. While calling domestic violence “an intolerable offense,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority that “the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” He wrote that her death does not justify “abridging the rights of criminal defendants.”

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the Court should have ruled that defendants forfeit their constitutional right to confront witnesses when they are responsible for the witness’ absence from trial. The ruling, Breyer wrote, “grants the defendant not fair treatment, but a windfall.”

“We have real concern that today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Giles v. California will make it less likely that victims of domestic violence will seek help from police, and more difficult for them to get justice from the courts,” said Family Violence Prevention Fund President Esta Soler. “We recognize the need to protect the rights of the accused, but there is also an urgent imperative to make it possible for prosecutions to succeed when victims have been murdered and thus cannot testify – and be cross-examined – in court. There seems to be strong evidence that Dwayne Giles murdered Brenda Avie, shooting her six times even as she tried to get away. We hope that the evidence that will be admissible at re-trial will be enough to convict him once again – and that today’s Supreme Court ruling will not have a chilling effect on efforts to stop domestic violence and protect victims.”

To read the ruling, visit www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-6053.pdf.

Patrick Kennedy v. State of Louisiana

In 1998, Patrick Kennedy was convicted of the brutal rape of his then-eight-year-old stepdaughter. Louisiana is one of five states that adopted laws allowing executions of people who rape children, and in 2004 Kennedy was sentenced to death.

In the five to four decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a person who rapes a child cannot be sentenced to death. Ruling for the majority, Justices Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven Breyer continued the court’s trend of narrowing the number of criminals who are eligible for the death penalty. In recent years, juveniles, people with mental retardation and adult rapists have been removed from death rows.

Louisiana officials had argued – unsuccessfully – that the “evolving standards of decency” that tightened restrictions for sentencing a person to death also dictate harsher punishment for criminals who violate children.

A coalition of violence prevention experts, service providers and social workers has asked the Court to rule the way it did, disallowing the use of the death penalty in cases of child rape. They argued that allowing executions of child rapists would compound the harm to the victim. The National Association of Social Workers and its Louisiana Chapter, Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and Texas Association Against Sexual Assault had filed an amicus brief in support of Kennedy. In the end, a narrow majority on the Supreme Court agreed with them.

The Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA) supported the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. In a statement, TAASA said, “Victim advocates have long been concerned that the death penalty for child sexual assault cases could backfire and result in fewer convictions of sex offenders. The issue of child sexual abuse is complex. Most child sexual abuse victims are abused by a family member or close family friend. The reality is that child victims and their families don’t want to be responsible for sending a grandparent, cousin or long time family friend to death row.”

To read the ruling, visit www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/07pdf/07-343.pdf.

District of Columbia v. Heller

On June 26, in a much-anticipated ruling, the Court overturned the District of Columbia’s ban on handgun possession by a vote of five to four. This was the first time the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to keep a loaded gun at home for purposes of self-defense. Earlier rulings had tied the right to own a gun to militia service. The decision is expected to result in further litigation to determine which kinds of restrictive gun laws will be upheld under the new standard.

District of Columbia Police Chief Cathy Lanier responded on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition on July 1, “The number one question I get: Is crime going to go through the roof or is crime going to go down? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t think either one of those things [is going to happen]. We’re not going to see a dramatic increase or decrease in crime… The other thing that I worry the most about, that really does have a direct impact on crime, is domestic violence, in a home where a handgun is now present and it wasn’t before – the possibility of domestic violence with a firearm. I worry about that a lot.”

“The decision’s most serious effect is the increase in handguns in the home, where guns typically do the greatest damage,” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) said. “Today’s decision is likely to encourage law abiding people to buy guns, with the likelihood that the ruling will produce an increase in accidents and gun violence among family members and even neighbors, as some in the rush of anger fetch the guns to escalate or settle a dispute.”

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