SCOTUS overturns conviction in shooting death of toddler by 8-1 vote

In a remarkably lopsided 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the conviction of a man found guilty in the deadly shooting of a toddler back in 2006, with only Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting on primarily procedural grounds, as Law & Crime reports.

The controversy stemmed from an incident in which the victim, 2-year-old David Pacheco Jr. was struck down by a stray bullet while sitting in a vehicle in the Bronx, with three individuals subsequently identified as playing some role in the events in question, including Nicholas Morris and Darrelll Hemphill, whose conviction was overturned by the high court.

Morris eventually pleaded to criminal gun possession, but not of the gun that killed Pacheco, and Hemphill was later indicted for the crime due in part to DNA evidence linking him to the offense.

Hemphill went on to lay blame at Morris’ feet during his trial, and during those proceedings, prosecutors used part of the statements made by Morris as part of his plea deal as a way to contextualize and rebut Hemphill’s claims – even though defense counsel contended that doing so was a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to confront one’s accuser.

The judge at the trial court level opined that the door had been opened for the prosecutor’s use of Morris’ statements to correct a “misleading impression” generated by Hemphill’s defense claims, and Hemphill was subsequently convicted and received a prison sentence of 25 years to life.

Appeals by Hemphill to New York state appellate courts did not succeed, and his conviction and sentence were affirmed, paving the way for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which resulted in a ruling that it had been wrong to permit the admission of one-sided evidence without an opportunity for cross examination.

Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor declared, “For Confrontation Clause purposes, it was not for the judge to determine whether Hemphill’s theory that Morris was the shooter was unreliable, incredible, or otherwise misleading in light of the State’s proffered, unconfronted plea evidence.”

As the sole dissenter, Thomas stated that since Hemphill did not argue the Sixth Amendment claim at issue during his state court appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court did not even have jurisdiction over the matter, and cautioned against what he sees as a worsening pattern of disregard of procedural rules for hearing cases and controversies, a trend he characterized as a “grave matter.”

With the Supreme Court’s ruling in the matter now solidified, the New York Post notes that the case will be returned to the Court of Appeals in New York for a determination of whether Hemphill would have been found guilty absent the evidence from Morris’ plea allocution.