If the defendant raises a confrontation clause challenge on the basis of exclusion of an area of inquiry it is reviewed de novo, while a challenge to the court’s restrictions on the manner or scope of cross examination is reviewed for abuse of discretion.
Appellants were tried for drug offenses. Two co-conspirators in the offenses agreed to testify for the government against appellants in exchange for sentencing benefits; one of them faced a mandatory life sentence in the absence of the government’s intercession. The trial court prohibited trial counsel from exploring this exposure although it did allow cross examination into the witness’ drug involvement, past criminal history, and the fact that the witness was cooperating with the government in the hope of a sentence reduction. The appellate court found the trial court abused its discretion in limiting the cross examination and that the restriction resulted in a violation of the confrontation clause. The excluded evidence was relevant, there were no legitimate interests that outweighed appellant’s interest in presenting the evidence, and the exclusion of evidence did not permit the jury to adequately assess the witness’ credibility. However, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because the government’s case against appellants was strong even without the testimony.