The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled in the case of Commonwealth v. Robert Lezynski, decided on August 2, 2013, that the defendant’s conviction of possession of Class B drug with the intent to distribute was not influenced by an improperly admitted toxicology report in violation of the Sixth Amendment. As a Massachusetts Criminal Defense Lawyer, the Sixth Amendment demands face to face confrontation and this right must be vigorously safeguarded when the Commonwealth tries to admit testimonial evidence through another witness.
In the matter of Commonwealth v. Lezynski, prosecutors sought to convict Mr. Lezynski of possession and distribution of fentanyl patches at a party. The prosecutors presented eye witnesses who testified to having observed Mr. Lezynski with the patches and giving some to one of the guests, who died shortly thereafter. The victim had smoked marijuana before the party and was heavily intoxicated from drinking that night, causing acute fentanyl and alcohol intoxication. The prosecutors also presented toxicology reports of the victim’s blood, and sought to admit them into evidence through the director of forensic toxicology at one of the labs that analyzed the victim’s blood. Mr. Lezynski’s attorney did not object.
Mr. Lezynski was indicted on manslaughter and possession with intent to distribute a class B controlled substance. The jury convicted Mr. Lezynski of possession and distribution, and Mr. Lezynski subsequently appealed.
In his appeal, Mr. Lezynski argued that his constitutionally protected rights were violated when the trial judge allowed the prosecutors to admit toxicology reports into evidence without the lab technicians themselves testifying. Instead, the prosecutors called the director of forensic toxicology at UMass Memorial to testify that one of his analysts performed a drug screening of the victim’s blood and detected traces of fentanyl. A sample was then sent to a Pennsylvania lab which determined the quantity of the substance in the blood.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that allowing these reports to be admitted to the jury through the lab director rather than the lab technicians who actually conducted the analyses was “error of constitutional dimension.” The Court explained that Massachusetts evidence law bars any expert witness from testifying on direct exam to test results on which his opinion was based if the witness himself had not performed the actual lab tests. Because the lab director had not performed the blood screening, the prosecutor could not admit the toxicology reports into evidence through his testimony. Doing so would deprive Mr. Lezynski of his constitutional right to confront the individuals who actually produced the reports used by the prosecutor to obtain a conviction.
The Court ultimately upheld the conviction, however, ruling the evidence against Mr. Lezynski was powerful enough to lead to a conviction even without the inadmissible reports. Nonetheless, this case stands as a stark reminder to defense attorneys to remain vigilant and aware of their obligation to challenge inadmissible evidence. In situations where the prosecution’s case is not as robust, a defense attorney’s failure to object to such evidence could mean the difference between the client going home and imprisonment.