Note: We are crunching Supreme Court of Wisconsin decisions down to size. The rule for this is that no justice gets more than 10 paragraphs as written in the actual decision. The "upshot" and "background" sections do not count as part of the 10 paragraphs because of their summary and very necessary nature. We've also removed citations from the opinion for ease of reading, but have linked to important cases cited or information about them. Italics indicate WJI insertions except for case names, which also are italicized.
The case: State of Wisconsin v. Oscar C. Thomas
Majority/Lead Opinion: Justice Patience D. Roggensack announced the mandate of the court and delivered a partial majority opinion (34 pages) that was joined by Chief Justice Annette K. Ziegler and joined in part by Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Grassl Bradley, Rebecca F. Dallet, Brian Hagedorn, and Jill J. Karofsky.
Concurrence: Dallet (10 pages), which reflects the majority opinion of the court on the issue of confrontation; joined by Walsh Bradley, Grassl Bradley, and Karofsky.
Concurrence: Hagedorn (2 pages).
The state switched its argument during litigation, according to Roggensack's and Hagedorn's writings. The state first argued that a DNA report was used by the prosecution to impeach Thomas's defense expert. Later it argued the report was used during cross-examination and closing argument to show the truth of the matter it concerned.
For people most interested in the confrontation issue, WJI recommends reading Dallet's concurrence first, as it is the majority opinion of the court and her writing is clear.
(Joined by Walsh Bradley, Grassl Bradley, Dallet, Karofsky, and Ziegler)
We accepted two issues for review. First, whether Thomas's confession of sexual assault was corroborated by a significant fact, and we conclude it was. This opinion is the majority opinion for the discussion of corroboration. Second, whether the cross-examination of Thomas's expert witness by use of a Wisconsin Crime Lab report ("the Report") that was not in evidence and whose author did not testify violated Thomas's confrontation right. Four justices conclude the Report's contents were used for their truth during cross-examination, thereby violating Thomas's right of confrontation. Justice Dallet's concurrence is the decision of the court for the confrontation issue. Six justices conclude Hemphill (v. New York) precludes admission of evidence to correct an allegedly misleading impression created by the defendant, and seven justices conclude that any error related to the Report was harmless. Accordingly, we affirm the court of appeals.
Thomas was arrested in 2006 for strangling to death his wife, Joyce Oliver-Thomas. He was charged with first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree sexual assault, and false imprisonment. (Roggensack says in a footnote that the couple was divorced, but reconciled without remarrying. The decision refers to them as married, though this was not technically true at the time of Oliver-Thomas's death.) A jury convicted Thomas on all counts.
Thomas's first appeal failed in state courts, but he filed a federal habeas petition and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted him a new trial. In 2018, a jury again convicted him on all counts, and Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce E. Schroeder sentenced him to life in prison. Thomas appealed again and lost in the state court of appeals.
(Joined by Ziegler)
.... Specifically, the court of appeals concluded there was sufficient corroborating evidence of the sexual assault confession, and denial of the postconviction motion was appropriate. The court of appeals also concluded the Report's DNA evidence was "inadmissible hearsay," causing a Confrontation Clause violation when it was used erroneously during trial and during the State's closing argument. However, the court of appeals concluded that the error was harmless.
In its briefing to us, the State did not argue that the Report could be used for the truth of its contents. Rather, it set the issue up as: "[W]hen Thomas's expert gave testimony directly contradicting the lab report on which he relied, it was an implied waiver of Thomas's right to confront the author of the lab report." However, Dr. Williams did not say he "relied" on the Report, but rather, that he "reviewed" the Report along with hundreds of other pages of material relative to this case. Nevertheless, the State veered from the argument it raised consistently below that the prosecutor used the Report to impeach Thomas's defense expert. Instead, at oral argument the State argued that we should analyze the Report based on the contention that its contents were properly used during cross-examination and during closing argument for the truth of the matters asserted therein.
Thomas gave contradictory statements to the police, which involved him smoking crack before Oliver-Thomas's death. In one, Thomas said he and Oliver-Thomas, after she complained repeatedly of chest pain during the day, fell off the bed while they had sex. Thomas left the building for a time afterwards and found his wife on the floor when he returned. In another, Thomas said Oliver-Thomas at first asked him to stop with his sexual advances, but then consented to sex. In this version, too, they fell to the floor. Thomas said he had his left arm up around his wife's neck while they had sex. The two got back into bed, but fell out again. Thomas said he again had his arm around her neck. He left the apartment and returned to find Oliver-Thomas lying face down on the floor. Thomas said he tried to lift her, but lost his grip twice and Oliver-Thomas's face hit the bed or floor each time.
(Joined by Ziegler, Walsh Bradley, Grassl Bradley, Dallet, Hagedorn, and Karofsky)
While the State does not, and need not, offer corroborating evidence of every element of the crime of sexual assault, the State has offered corroborating evidence for a "significant fact" of Thomas's statements given to police. Thomas's downstairs neighbor testified she heard an argument between a man and woman, and the woman screamed, "Stop, stop, I love you, I love you." The neighbor also testified she heard something big hit the floor, the sound of furniture moving, and silence. She then heard the apartment door open, and a person she identified as Thomas walked out.
(Joined by Ziegler only)
The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution prevents the admission of testimonial hearsay when the declarant is absent from trial unless the witness is unavailable and the defendant has had a prior opportunity to cross-examine the witness. ...
Thomas called just one witness at trial – Dr. Williams, a medical examiner. On direct examination, Dr. Williams testified that "in allegations of violence resulting in death," he looks for "an exchange of trauma, an exchange of evidence" between the victim and accused. When asked specifically, Dr. Williams replied that he did not see signs of a struggle or of defensive wounds. In his opinion, abrasions on Ms. Oliver-Thomas's face could have resulted from emergency CPR or from engaging in face-down sex on the floor, consistent with Thomas's statements.
On cross-examination, the state challenged Dr. Williams's characterization that there were no signs of an exchange of trauma.... Documents submitted prior to trial indicate Dr. Williams reviewed the Report, among other things, in preparing his testimony. Thomas urges us to conclude that the details elicited on cross-examination of Dr. Williams violated his confrontation right.
[T]he State's use of the Report to impeach Dr. Williams on cross-examination did not violate Thomas's confrontation right. The State challenged Dr. Williams's conclusion that there was "no exchange of evidence" by referencing the report that Dr. Williams had reviewed, which showed DNA exchanges under the fingernails of Thomas and Ms. Oliver-Thomas. Stated otherwise, by drawing attention to the "exchange" of DNA between Thomas and Ms. Oliver-Thomas, the State attempted to undermine Dr. Williams's opinion that Ms. Oliver-Thomas's cause of death could have been accidental. The degree to which the State succeeded in limiting the usefulness of Dr. Williams's testimony was then considered by the jury together with all of the evidence in deciding Thomas's guilt. Although we recognize Thomas could have asked for limiting instructions that the jury not consider the Report's contents for their truth because testimony about the contents of the Report was not admitted for substantive purposes, he made no such request. We conclude the State's questioning on cross-examination relevant to the Report did not violate Thomas's right to confront the Report's author when used to impeach Dr. Williams's opinion.
.... [T]he State views the Report at issue in Thomas's conviction as belonging to a "narrow category of evidence that a defense expert relied on and gave factually inaccurate testimony about." ... [I]n the State's view, Thomas elicited testimony that "flatly contradicted" the Report. Because "he made 'a tactical choice' to put the [R]eport in play," he "waived his confrontation right as to that [R]eport."
.... However, if the State wanted to use the Report for its truth, the State was required to introduce and authenticate the Report and then subject its author to cross-examination by Thomas in accordance with the Sixth Amendment. ... The information the State elicited from Dr. Williams on cross-examination for impeachment purposes did not transform the Report into admissible hearsay. ...
We conclude the State's reliance on hearsay evidence that was used to impeach Thomas's expert's opinion was improper during closing arguments because the Report then was used for the truth of the statements therein. As stated earlier, the facts or data upon which an expert bases her opinion may be introduced ... but only for the limited purpose of assisting the factfinder in determining an expert's credibility. Evidence brought in for that purpose does not transform into admissible hearsay for subsequent use at trial.
Furthermore, after defense counsel objected, the prosecutor incorrectly assured the judge that, "[T]he evidence supports this theory, Your Honor. We have testimony of the scratches on her face. ... Her DNA is found under his fingernails." It was therefore erroneous to permit the prosecutor's statement in closing argument because the DNA evidence in the Report was not properly admitted as evidence for its substantive content.
The harmless error query does not reduce to a mere quantum of evidence, but instead, whether absent the hearsay/Report it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury would have found Thomas guilty. Here, we conclude that the State offered sufficient evidence for a rational jury to determine Thomas sexually assaulted and intentionally took the life of his wife. All of the observations of physical injury to Ms. Oliver-Thomas are consistent with the jury's conclusion that Thomas's interactions with her were not consensual and were intentional. Accordingly, we conclude that the state has met its burden to show that the error was harmless.
I conclude that the State violated Thomas's Sixth Amendment rights. The State sought the DNA evidence described in the Crime Lab report for its truth at trial. That much is clear from the prosecutor's closing argument to the jury. And the State confirmed that the DNA evidence was offered for its truth throughout briefing and during oral argument in this court. For that reason, the DNA evidence in the Crime Lab report was testimonial hearsay; it was an out of court statement, prepared "under circumstances which would lead an objective witness reasonably to believe that the statement would be available for use at a later trial," and offered by someone other than the declarant for the truth of the matters asserted. Because the author of that report was not available for cross-examination, admitting testimony about it therefore violated the Confrontation Clause. Nevertheless, because that Confrontation Clause violation was harmless, I conclude that Thomas's convictions should stand.
Thomas's forensic expert, the sole defense witness at trial, testified on direct examination that he did not see any defensive wounds or "signs of a struggle" on the victim. This was important because Thomas argued that he killed the victim accidentally. During cross-examination, the State asked Thomas's expert if he reviewed reports from the Wisconsin Crime Lab in reaching his conclusions. This was the first time the Crime Lab report and the DNA evidence contained in it came up at trial, and defense counsel objected to any questioning about the contents of the report. The circuit court overruled the objection, however, and allowed the State to ask Thomas's expert about the report because he reviewed it before reaching his opinion. The prosecutor then asked the expert about the report's finding that Thomas's DNA was under the victim's fingernails at the time of the autopsy. After looking at the report, Thomas's expert said "[y]es, this appears to be an analysis that shows that the DNA found under the fingerprints [sic] was obviously a mixture. You are going to have [the victim's] DNA, but also evidence of DNA from Oscar Thomas." He also confirmed that the victim's DNA was found under Thomas's fingernails. Thomas's expert dismissed those conclusions, however, explaining that Thomas and the victim were married, and "[a] finding of the DNA, they could be scratching each other's back. I mean, there is no evidence of trauma on him to support the fact that she was struggling." The report was never admitted into evidence.
The State's actions would have been permissible if, as the majority/lead opinion hypothesizes, it was done only to impeach Thomas's expert during cross-examination. But the record, and the State's briefing and presentation at oral argument, all establish that the evidence was offered for the truth of matters contained in the report – that the victim's DNA was under Thomas's fingernails and Thomas's DNA was under her fingernails. That was why, when the circuit court told the prosecutor to confine his closing arguments to the evidence, he responded – in front of the jury – that "[w]e have testimony of the scratches on [the victim's] face. We have testimony that it could have been caused by DNA. Her DNA is found under his fingernails." The only "testimony" about DNA was Thomas's expert's answers about the Crime Lab report's findings during cross-examination. And if there was any remaining question about the purpose of eliciting that testimony, it was answered in briefing and at oral argument in this court, where the State consistently asserted that Thomas impliedly waived his right to confront the author of the Crime Lab report when his expert's testimony contradicted the report's contents.
Nevertheless, the majority/lead opinion insists that the State used the evidence during cross-examination not for its truth, but only to impeach Thomas's expert's credibility. That is correct, in the majority/lead opinion's view, since the State's briefing "did not argue that the report could be used for the truth of its contents." But the majority/lead opinion misunderstands the State's position. Its argument that Thomas impliedly waived his confrontation right only matters if the report was used for its truth. After all, the Confrontation Clause only prohibits the introduction of testimonial hearsay, and hearsay is, by definition, an out of court statement that is "offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted." Thus, the State's consistent position before us is that it did not violate the Confrontation Clause when it sought to establish the truth of the Crime Lab report's findings through Thomas's expert's testimony on cross-examination.
The problem with that position is that the Confrontation Clause "prohibits the introduction of testimonial statements by a non-testifying witness, unless the witness is 'unavailable to testify, and the defendant had had a prior opportunity for cross-examination.'" Crime lab reports are testimonial statements because they are "made under circumstances which would lead an objective witness reasonably to believe that the statement would be available for use at a later trial." And for that reason, the conclusions reached by such reports may be admitted for their truth at trial only if the person who prepared the report is subject to cross-examination.
That wasn't the case at Thomas's trial. Instead, through its questioning of Thomas's expert, the State was able to elicit DNA evidence from the Crime Lab report without affording Thomas the opportunity to confront the analyst who prepared that report – a straightforward Confrontation Clause violation.
The State tries to sidestep that violation by arguing that Thomas impliedly waived his right to confront the analyst who prepared the Crime Lab report when his expert witness "relied on" the DNA evidence in that report and then "gave factually inaccurate testimony about" it. This argument is based on the direct testimony of Thomas's expert that he did not see any defensive wounds or "signs of a struggle" on the victim. The State claims that was inaccurate because the DNA evidence showed that Thomas's DNA was under the victim's fingernails (and her DNA under his). And for that reason, the State did not violate the Sixth Amendment by establishing the facts contained in the report through cross-examining Thomas's expert.
This argument, however, mirrors an evidentiary rule the United States Supreme Court recently held was unconstitutional in Hemphill v. New York. That rule allowed evidence that would otherwise violate the Confrontation Clause to be admitted when the defendant "opened the door;" that is, when the defendant created "a misleading impression that requires correction with additional materials from the other side." The Court rejected that rule because the Sixth Amendment's text "'does not suggest any open-ended exceptions from the confrontation requirement to be developed by courts.'" ...
.... Yet that is what the State asks us to conclude: that the DNA evidence contained in the Crime Lab report "was reasonably necessary to correct [the] misleading impression" created by Thomas's expert's testimony that he did not see any defensive wounds or "signs of a struggle" on the victim. But adopting the State's position would defy Hemphill – something we cannot do. Accordingly, Thomas did not impliedly waive his Confrontation Clause right, and admitting testimony about the contents of the Crime Lab report without affording him the opportunity to confront its author violated the Sixth Amendment.
Nevertheless, the error was harmless, Dallet said.
Here, it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the admission of the DNA evidence did not contribute to the guilty verdict. To be sure, the DNA evidence was used as support for the State's theory that Thomas intended to kill the victim and, conversely, to rebut Thomas's theory that the death was accidental. And admittedly, the DNA evidence was somewhat useful in that regard as it bolstered the State's narrative that Thomas scratched the victim's face with his free hand while choking her to death. But the evidence wasn't necessary to support that theory since the State's case was already strong without it. The jury heard testimony from the medical examiner about injuries to the victim's face, neck, tongue, and lips, all of which were consistent with Thomas violently and intentionally strangling the victim. Additionally, the jury also heard from Thomas's neighbor, who awoke to a loud argument in the middle of the night and a woman screaming "[s]top, stop, I love you, I love you." She then heard a loud noise, furniture moving, and silence.
.... I agree with my colleagues that any alleged Confrontation Clause violation was harmless. But I do not join their analysis of the Confrontation Clause issues for two reasons.
First, it is unclear how to analyze and categorize the State's use of the report. In response to Thomas's postconviction motion and his appeal, the State argued the DNA evidence was used for impeachment purposes. However, in briefing and at argument before us, the State asserts, and Thomas agrees, that the DNA evidence was admitted for its truth during cross-examination. Justice Roggensack's opinion concludes that the DNA evidence was properly used to impeach the defense expert – relying on the parties' prior arguments. By contrast, Justice Dallet's opinion relies on the State's current representation, despite the fact that is not how this issue was litigated or represented below. This is unusual, to say the least, and forms a questionable foundation upon which to opine on these matters.
Second, the confrontation issues in this case are novel and factually complicated. They center on how to treat a report not admitted into evidence that is nonetheless reviewed by a testifying defense expert. May the contents of such a report be explored on cross-examination by the State? To what end? The United States Supreme Court, whose decisions we are principally applying in this area of law, has not addressed this question. With little guidance from the Supreme Court in this still emerging area of law, and because this case is sufficiently resolved on harmless error, I would not wade into these uncharted waters at this time.
Rather than forge our own path on the State's use of the evidence, or analyze a novel area of federal constitutional law where the United States Supreme Court has left much unaddressed, I would simply conclude the Confrontation Clause errors Thomas alleges, if they are errors at all, were harmless. Thomas is not entitled to a new trial and his convictions should be affirmed. I respectfully concur.
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