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What crime victims tell doctors might be more important than what they say to law enforcement officers. In a 6-1 ruling, the California Supreme Court held on Monday that while crime victims’ informal statements to officers might not be admissible in court, statements to doctors would be allowed. At issue was whether such statements could be used against a defendant if the victim never faced cross-examination. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2004′s Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, declared so-called testimonial hearsay inadmissible � and a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to confrontation � unless a defendant has the opportunity to interrogate the victim. On Monday, the California Supreme Court distinguished between an officer’s questions, aimed at investigating a crime, and a doctor’s inquiry, designed to deal with a possible medical injury. The court indicated that a doctor’s questions are geared toward providing proper treatment, whereas a law enforcement officer, even in an informal setting, might seek information that could be used at trial. That difference would make the statements to an officer testimonial in nature and inadmissible unless the defendant had a chance to cross-examine the victim. The officer’s “clear purpose in coming to speak with” the victim in the case before the court “was not to deal with a present emergency,” Justice Marvin Baxter wrote, “but to obtain a fresh account of past events involving defendant as part of an inquiry into possible criminal activity.” But even though the court found that the officer’s statements violated the defendant’s rights, the court declared them harmless error and upheld the conviction. Lisa Cage was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2003 for assaulting her 15-year-old son, John Flores, with a deadly weapon. While being treated, the boy told Riverside County Deputy Sheriff Perry Mullin and an emergency room physician that his mom had slashed his face with a shard of glass during a fight. Flores later repeated his story during questioning at the sheriff’s department. The statements became a problem when Flores couldn’t be found to testify. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Robert McIntyre admitted all three statements, saying they didn’t violate the confrontation clause. Riverside’s Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed in 2004, holding that the statements, given spontaneously during medical treatment, were not part of a formal police investigation. The Supreme Court disagreed Monday, noting that the boy’s two statements to Deputy Mullin “were made in response to focused police questioning whose primary purpose, objectively considered, was not to deal with an ongoing emergency, but to investigate the circumstances of a crime.” On the other hand, the court held, the doctor’s sole question � “what happened?” � was aimed at dealing with “a contemporaneous medical situation that required immediate information about what had caused the victim’s wound.” Justice Joyce Kennard agreed with the majority that the statements given to the officer were inadmissible. But she dissented on the finding of harmless error. Kennard said that since defense lawyers never got to cross-examine the boy, there was no way to ascertain that his version of the incident was correct. Some witnesses, she noted, gave different accounts. “It may well be that if the trial court had excluded John’s two separate statements to Deputy Mullin describing defendant’s assault on him,” she wrote, “the jury would still have found defendant guilty. But the jury could also have acquitted defendant.” El Cajon attorney Jeanne Vanderhoff, who represented the defendant, couldn’t be reached for comment on Monday. The prosecutor, San Diego-based Deputy Attorney General Scott Taylor, was pleased the conviction was upheld and the statement to the doctor was admissible. “Of course, we argued that the statement to the police officer at the hospital should have been deemed non-testimonial,” he said, “so we’re disappointed by that. But overall, I think it’s a pretty positive outcome.” The ruling is People v. Cage, 07 C.D.O.S. 3682 (.pdf).

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