U.S. justices vacate crash case

Last modified: 6/30/2011 12:00:00 AM
The U.S. Supreme Court this week overturned the manslaughter convictions of a New Hampshire man because he had not been able to cross-examine the lab technician who found traces of drugs in his blood after a fatal car crash.

The court set aside a state Supreme Court ruling against Anthony Dilboy of Rochester, who was convicted in 2008 of manslaughter and negligent homicide. Prosecutors presented lab evidence that Dilboy took heroin, cocaine and prescription drugs before running a red light and crashing into another car in Dover in 2006, killing the two people inside.

But the technician who tested Dilboy's blood didn't testify to the results during trial. Instead, the lab's supervisor was called as a witness - denying Dilboy his constitutional right to confront the evidence against him, his attorneys argued.

The state Supreme Court rejected Dilboy's argument last year, upholding his convictions. While the U.S. Supreme Court had previously ruled that lab results couldn't be presented as evidence during trial without a witness to testify to them, it didn't specify who that witness could be, and New Hampshire's justices pointed to that opinion as they decided against Dilboy, ruling that he hadn't been denied his right to confront the evidence, because he was able to cross-examine the lab's supervisor.

But the high court clarified its ruling last week, overturning the driving while intoxicated conviction of a New Mexico man whose trial included testimony to his blood-alcohol concentration from a lab analyst who hadn't personally performed the test.

The justices cited their opinion in that case when vacating the convictions against Dilboy, whose case was one of several taken up by the court hinging on the same question: Who can testify to lab evidence against a defendant during trial?

"It was known you couldn't just introduce a piece of paper," said David Rothstein, deputy chief of the appellate defender's program run by New Hampshire Public Defender and the University of New Hampshire School of Law. But "if you're not going to call the analyst, what are the implications?" he said.

Rothstein said appellate defender Stephanie Hausman, who represented Dilboy in the appeal, believed that the state Supreme Court's decision was inconsistent with federal law. She petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to accept Dilboy's case last year, and his appeal was put on hold while the court decided the New Mexico case, Rothstein said.

While the justices set aside the New Hampshire Supreme Court's ruling, their opinion in the New Mexico case was far from unanimous. The justices split 5-4, with Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas siding with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor in the majority.

"It's a quirky issue," Rothstein said. "Not the normal sort of ideological split."

Rothstein said he could not remember the last time the court overturned a New Hampshire case. He said his office, which has six appellate defenders, has petitioned the court less than 10 times in the last 10 years.

It's "extremely rare" that cases are accepted, Rothstein said, although the court accepted another appeal from his office earlier this year. That case, which deals with eyewitness identifications, is scheduled for argument this fall.

"You talk about lightning striking - it's like lightning striking twice," Rothstein said.

Dilboy's case will now be sent to the state Supreme Court, which will likely have to send it back to Strafford County for a new trial, Rothstein said. Dilboy is in prison and won't be eligible for parole for 10 years, according to prison records.

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com.)

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistated the action taken by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court vacated the judgment against Dilboy and remanded the case to the state Supreme Court for further consideration.

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