Lilly v. Virginia, 527 U.S. 116 (1999)

The confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to cross-examine witnesses. The Court in Lilly had to balance the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination with the Sixth Amendment right to cross-examine witnesses.

Benjamin Lilly and his brother, Mark, were charged with robbery, abduction, and capital murder. On arrest, the police questioned both men, and Mark confessed to several of the related crimes but maintained that Benjamin had shot and killed the victim. At Benjamin’s trial, the prosecution called Mark to testify, and he invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The prosecution then admitted Mark’s confession into evidence, over defendant’s objection, and the jury convicted Benjamin of capital murder and sentenced him to death.

Out-of-court statements made by unavailable witnesses are hearsay and are inadmissible unless the evidence falls within a firmly rooted exception or contains particularized guarantees of trustworthiness. The Court reversed the trial court and held that Mark’s confession was improperly admitted because it did not fall within an exception to the hearsay rule. The Virginia Supreme Court had found that the confession fell within an exception because Mark’s confession was against his penal interest, but the Court disagreed explaining that such confessions are inherently unreliable, especially when serving to shift blame to another.

The Court was unanimous in the judgment but mustered only a plurality of four in the reasoning. The application of Lilly remains unsettled, although the Court recognized that cross-examination remains the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of the truth.

References and Further Reading

  • Gore, Kimberly G., Interpreting the Confrontation Clause: Is There Dissension Among the Ranks?, Mississippi College Law Review 21, Fall (2001): 83–119.
  • LILBORNE, JOHN (FREEBORN JOHN) (1614–1657) 920 Kirst, Roger, Appellate Court Answers to the Confrontation Questions in Lilly v. Virginia, Syracuse Law Review 53 (2003): 87–169.

J. AMY DILLARD

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Lilly v. Virginia, 527 U.S. 116 (1999)
See also Confrontation Clause; Defense, Right to Present; Hearsay Evidence

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