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Supreme Court Considers Domestic Homicide Case

Jun 3, 2008

In late April, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Giles vs. California – a case the justices may use to clarify the Sixth Amendment’s “confrontation clause.” Their ruling may have implications for victims of domestic violence.

The case is based on an appeal brought by Dwayne Giles, a Californian who is accused of shooting and killing his former girlfriend, Brenda Avie. Several weeks before the murder, Avie told police that Giles was threatening to kill her. At issue is whether the California Supreme Court was right to rule that a police officer’s testimony about what Avie told him is admissible. Avie was not under oath when she spoke to the police officer, so it is an unsworn allegation that would not be admissible if she was alive, because Giles has the right to face her in court to challenge her claim.

Chief Justice John Roberts noted, “Here he gets a great benefit from murdering her, which is that her testimony is not available. We usually, under our system, don’t try to give benefits to murderers.”

“He got on the stand, and he said some very nasty things about her,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said to Giles’ attorney. “I mean, he painted her as aggressive, vengeful. Isn’t there a legitimate rebuttal when he is painting her as the aggressor, and she has given a statement that suggests that he is the one who was aggressive?”

If the Supreme Court sides with Giles, the ruling will likely make it harder for prosecutors to win convictions in some murder, domestic and sexual violence, and child abuse cases. If the Court adopts a less restrictive view of the “confrontation clause,” some defendants could be tried and convicted based on unsworn allegations that they cannot refute from murder victims.

Thirty-seven states, groups working with child abuse and domestic violence victims, and child-abuse prosecutors filed briefs urging the justices to uphold the California Supreme Court ruling.

A ruling on Giles vs. California is expected later this summer.

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