Autopsy Report on Suspicious Death is Testimonial under Confrontation Clause

An autopsy report is testimonial evidence for purposes of the Confrontation Clause when the victim’s death was sudden, violent or suspicious, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held in Com. v. Brown, __ A.3d __ (No. 1165 EDA 2015, filed May 10, 2016). On December 9, 2012, Darnell Brown and Cory Morton got into a verbal altercation at a party in Philadelphia. Brown shot Morton four times in the chest. Morton died as a result of his gunshot wounds. At trial, Dr. Albert Chu, an assistant medical examiner, testified as an expert on the cause and manner of Morton’s death. Dr. Chu was not present at Morton’s autopsy. He testified based upon his review of the autopsy report prepared by Dr. Marlon Osbourne. The autopsy report was admitted into evidence over the objection of Brown’s co-defendant. The jury convicted Brown of third-degree murder and firearms offenses. He appealed, arguing that the admission of Dr. Chu’s testimony violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.

The Superior Court held that “an autopsy report is testimonial when the death was sudden, violent or suspicious in nature, or was the result of other than natural causes.” The Court reasoned that the primary purpose of the autopsy report in this case was “to establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution.” The main issue, the Court continued, was whether Morton died from the four gunshot wounds, and the autopsy report clearly addressed this fact. The Court found support for its analysis in Pennsylvania’s statutory scheme governing medical examiners, which contemplates that an autopsy report will be used at a criminal trial where the victim’s death was violent or suspicious. The Court noted, but rejected, the rationale of other jurisdictions holding that because autopsy reports have multiple uses, they cannot categorically be considered testimonial in nature.

Because the autopsy report was testimonial, the Court concluded that the trial court erred by admitting the report and Dr. Chu’s reference to the opinions expressed by Dr. Osbourne therein. Nevertheless, the Court decided that Dr. Chu’s independent expert testimony regarding the cause of Morton’s death was admissible and sufficient to support Brown’s conviction. Thus, even though Brown’s Confrontation Clause right was violated, the Court held such error was harmless and affirmed the judgment of sentence.

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