U.S. Supreme Court Disagrees with Decision to Allow Secondhand Evidence of Domestic Violence in Murder Case
Monday, July 7, 2008 11:54 AM

On 25 June 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Dwayne Giles, the defendant in Giles v. California, who had been convicted of murdering his former girlfriend Brenda Avie, because a lower court should not have allowed certain evidence of domestic violence to be used against him in the murder trial. The evidence in question was the testimony of a police officer, who said Avie had told him that Giles had threatened to kill her. A secondhand statement like this one would normally be inadmissible because the Constitution guarantees the accused the right to confront witnesses against them in court, but the lower court made an exception in this case because it was Giles’ own wrongdoing that made it impossible for Avie to directly testify in court. This exception is known as forfeiture by wrongdoing.

In their decision, the Supreme Court said that the lower court should not have applied the doctrine of forfeiture by wrongdoing to this case, because it may only be used when the defendant’s wrongdoing had the specific purpose, not just the effect, of making the victim unable to testify. Justice Stephen Breyer, dissenting, said that since a defendant who kills someone knows that his victim will be prevented from testifying against him, his intention to silence the victim may be inferred from that knowledge, which should be enough to trigger forfeiture by wrongdoing.

The Family Violence Prevention Fund has expressed concern that the Court's ruling will make it more difficult to successfully prosecute batterers who eventually murder their victims, and may also deter victims from seeking help from the police before it’s too late.

To read the decision, click here.

Compiled from: “Newsflash: High Court Rules in Cases Affecting Victims of Violence,” Family Violence Prevention Fund, 26 June 2008; Giles v. California, Supreme Court of the United States, 25 June 2008.