In Sanchious v. State, the Georgia Supreme Court in a unanimous decision remanded the defendant’s child molestation case back to the Court of Appeals to reconsider the defendant’s claims that certain expert testimony and an expert’s report were improperly admitted at trial.
The Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals was in error for treating the defendant’s claim as a Confrontation Clause issue, noting that a challenge to the admission of evidence based on the Confrontation Clause and one based on an exception to the hearsay rule are not the same.
The appeal in this case arose after a jury found the defendant guilty of three counts of aggravated child molestation, two counts of child molestation, and one count each of aggravated sodomy and sexual battery of his girlfriend’s 12-year-old daughter.
The defendant contended on appeal that expert testimony and an expert’s report were improperly admitted into evidence at trial.
The expert testimony in question was that of Karen Turpin, a forensic biologist, who testified regarding DNA results that were documented in a report written by a different forensic biologist, Dr. Tesheka Wortham. Turpin testified that she personally tested the alleged victim’s sexual assault kit and failed to find the presence of male DNA.
However, Turpin was then permitted to testify regarding DNA tests performed by Dr. Wortham on the girl’s underwear and comforter. Turpin stated that she “peer reviewed” Dr. Wortham’s report and that these tests purportedly revealed the presence of DNA on both items matching the girl and the defendant. Defense counsel objected at trial to the admission of this testimony on hearsay grounds but the trial court allowed it, and the report, into evidence.
Following his conviction, the defendant filed a motion for new trial arguing that the trial court committed error by allowing the expert testimony and report into evidence. He argued that this evidence was inadmissible hearsay. In the alternative, the defendant’s appellate counsel also claimed that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the evidence on the grounds that it violated his right to confrontation under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
His motion for new trial was denied and the Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant’s conviction.
The defendant then petitioned the Georgia Supreme Court for review of the Court of Appeals’ decision. The Georgia Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals should have determined if the trial court abused its discretion based on the specific hearsay objection that was made at trial.
Instead of doing that “…the Court of Appeals conflated the analysis of the alleged hearsay error with respect to Turpin’s testimony—i.e., whether the trial court abused its discretion in admitting Turpin’s testimony about Dr. Wortham’s DNA report over trial counsel’s hearsay objection – with a Confrontation Clause analysis and concluded that Turpin’s expert testimony was not inadmissible on Confrontation Clause grounds.”
Thus, the Court of Appeals never addressed whether this evidence should have been excluded based on the specific hearsay objection made at trial. It is well-established in Georgia that there is a distinct difference between a challenge to the admission of evidence based on the Confrontation Clause and one based merely on hearsay.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals’ opinion and remanded the case back to them for a review of the specific hearsay objection that was raised at trial.
It is interesting to also note that this ruling was made immediately following the granting of the defendant’s petition for certiorari. Typically, when such a petition is granted by the court, the parties will then be permitted to fully brief the issue and participate in oral arguments. However, the court noted that its rules “contemplate that we may grant a petition for certiorari and dispose of the case summarily” and the court chose to do so here “because the issue we resolve would not benefit from further briefing and argument.”
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