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Confrontation – Bias: Limitation on Cross-Examination

State v. Justin Yang, 2006 WI App 48
For Olson: John J. Grau

Issue/Holding: Defense cross-examination of a principal State’s witness was impermissibly curtailed when the trial court abruptly ended inquiry into whether the witness had threatened to cause the defendant (her ex-husband) “trouble” following his remarriage, where:

  • The witness testified only with the aid of a translator and had obvious difficulty answering questions (“a witness’s comprehension affects our analysis of whether a trial court can cut-off cross-examination prematurely. … his inquiry into that area was not yet closed.  Accordingly, the trial court’s invocation of, in essence, ‘asked-and-denied’ to move the trial along was not yet justified, given the critical nature of motive to Yang’s defense.”) ¶13.
  • Although the inquiry would not have directly proved the defense theory, the desired inference was one “Yang was entitled to argue to the jury; not every fact in a trial is provable by direct-evidence. … Indeed, … are routinely told that circumstantial evidence can be as valuable to the jury as direct evidence[.]” ¶14.
  • Yang asserted, in opening statement, the fact sought to be established by the inquiry and it is therefore assumed that there was a good-faith basis for the questioning; nor would the jury have been bound by the witness’s denial. “Thus, Yang was entitled to have the jury decide from his lawyer’s questions and the nature of his former wife’s responses whether she was telling the truth[.]” ¶15.

The error was prejudicial, ¶17: it was a close case, as exemplified by partial acquittal; motive to lie was, by the State’s own representation to the jury, crucial and the curtailed cross “would have been an appropriate tool for them to use in making that assessment.” All in all, a fact-specific case, though it does seem to be a ringing endorsement of the right to cross-examine, especially with regard to potential matters of bias or motive to lie.

 

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