Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308 (1974)

2012-06-11 13:32:39

In Davis, the Supreme Court established that the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause generally guarantees criminal defendants the right to relevant cross-examination of prosecution witnesses about their criminal records.

Davis was tried for burglarizing a bar and stealing the safe. The prosecution’s star witness was a teenager, Green, who testified that he saw Davis standing on the road near where the empty safe was later found. Since Green had recently been adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent for two burglaries, Davis’s attorney wanted to question Green about his juvenile record to show that Green was eager to identify Davis in order to deflect suspicion from himself. However, the state courts barred Davis from revealing Green’s prior record because juvenile adjudications were confidential under state law.

Davis appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed by a vote of seven to two. The Court stressed that criminal defendants have the right to conduct probing cross-examinations of their accusers in order to discredit them. Since witnesses have traditionally been discredited by their criminal histories, the Court concluded that Davis should have been allowed to reveal Green’s criminal history and that his Confrontation Clause right to do so trumped the state’s interest in keeping juvenile records confidential. Since Davis, the Court has occasionally struck down other limits on cross-examination, such as the ruling in Olden v. Kentucky, 488 U.S. 227 (1988), barring a rape defendant from revealing the complainant’s sexual relationship with another key witness, while emphasizing that judges still retain discretion to protect witnesses from unnecessary harassment.


References and Further Reading

  • Jonakait, Randolph N., Restoring the Confrontation Clause to the Sixth Amendment, UCLA Law Review 35 (1988): 557.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Olden v. Kentucky, 488 U.S. 227 (1988)

See alsoConfrontation Clause;Defense, Right to Present