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November 03, 2014

Right of Confrontation: Medical Examiners Report

Case:   State v. Thomas Lee Hutchinson

Issue:   Can a medical examiner testify as to the contents of an autopsy report written by a different medical examiner?

Facts:  One medical examiner prepared the autopsy report but did not testify.  A second medical examiner testified as to the contents of the report over the objection of the defendant.

Appellate Decision:  A divided intermediate appellate court found that the testimony by the medical examiner did not violate the Confrontation Clause.  The primary purpose of the autopsy report was to identify the injuries sustained by the victim and determine his cause of death and was not accusing the defendant of engaging in any criminal conduct.  Therefore, under the “primary purpose test” as set forth by the United States Supreme Court, the autopsy report was not testimonial and its introduction was not a violation of the Confrontation Clause, notwithstanding that the author of the report did not testify. Judge Tipton dissented in part, writing that the admission of the report violated the Confrontation Clause but was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Review Granted:  October 20, 2014.

Prediction:  David believes that the Tennessee Supreme Court will affirm.  The defendant here attempted to distinguish his case from other authorities by the fact that he was already in custody at the time the autopsy report was prepared.  David believes that this is a distinction without a difference.  Autopsy reports are primarily prepared to determine cause of death but occasionally include additional factors such as the proximity of a weapon and the like.  Whether the defendant is in custody or not at the time the autopsy report is prepared is irrelevant.  The real question is whether or not the report is testimonial in the sense that it constitutes an accusation against the defendant.  Here, the autopsy report appeared to be quite literally an analysis of the injuries sustained by the victim and  had no direct connection to the defendant in any way.  David believes that there might be rare instances where parts of an autopsy report could implicate the defendant by directly connecting the defendant to the homicide such as a unique manner of death.  In that instance it is conceivable that introduction of that part of an autopsy report could well violate the Confrontation Clause and be inadmissible at least to the extent of that incriminating component.  The Court will also be concerned with the practical problem of instances where a medical examiner has died and a substitute medical examiner must testify.  This happens quite frequently particularly in “cold” cases. Under the facts here, David believes that the Tennessee Supreme Court will affirm.