Coy v. Iowa, 487 U.S. 1012; 108 S. Ct. 2798; 101 L. Ed. 2d 857 (1988)

Coy v. Iowa, 487 U.S. 1012; 108 S. Ct. 2798; 101 L. Ed. 2d 857 (1988)

Facts—Iowa law provided for a screen to be employed when juveniles testified against their accusers in sexual cases. In the case at hand, two thirteen-year-old girls who were witnesses against Coy (convicted of sexually molesting them as they slept in a tent in the yard next to his) were separated from the defendant by a curtain through which he could see them but they could not see him.

Question—Did the use of a curtain between the accusers and the defendant violate the defendant’s (a) Sixth Amendment right of confrontation or (b) his Fifth Amendment right of due process?

Decision—The Court focused on part a in the question and answered yes.

ReasonsJ. Scalia (6–2, with J. Kennedy not participating). Scalia associated the Sixth Amendment right to confrontation with the right of “face-to-face confrontation.” He traced this right to the Latin root of the word confront, which “ultimately derives from the prefix ‘con-’ (from ‘contra’ meaning ‘against’ or ‘opposed’) and the noun ‘frons’ (forehead).” He further examined usage in Shakespeare and other sources to conclude that “there is something deep in human nature that regards face-to-face confrontation between accused and accuser as “essential to a fair trial in a criminal prosecution.” “That face-to-face presence may, unfortunately, upset the truthful rape victim or abused child; but by the same token it may confound and undo the false accuser, or reveal the child coached by a malevolent adult. It is a truism that constitutional protections have costs.” Although the confrontation clause is not absolute, “something more than the type of generalized finding underlying such a statute is needed when the exception is not ‘firmly . . . rooted in our jurisprudence.’”

J. O’Connor, concurring, stressed that the right to face-to-face confrontation is not absolute and noted that many states have authorized the use of one or two-way cameras. She “would permit use of a particular trial procedure that called for something other than face-to-face confrontation if that procedure was necessary to further an important public policy,” especially when case-specific findings of necessity are made.

J. Blackmun, dissenting, tied the confrontation clause not to face-to-face meetings but to the right to have testimony given under oath and subject to cross-examination. He cited the legal commentator Wigmore to show that this was the essence of the Sixth Amendment right. The Court’s acceptance of some hearsay evidence indicates that the preference for face-to-face confrontation is not absolute. In this case, the absolute interpretation of the clause should give way to the public interest in combating child abuse. Blackmun further denied that the presence of the screen was “inherently prejudicial,” especially in light of the judge’s instructions that jurors were to draw no inferences of guilt from its presence.

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