Justia Summary

A stray 9-millimeter bullet killed a child after a Bronx street fight. Eyewitnesses described the shooter as wearing a blue shirt or sweater. Police officers determined Gilliam was involved and that Morris was at the scene. A search of Morris’ apartment revealed a 9-millimeter cartridge and .357-caliber bullets. Gilliam initially identified Morris as the shooter but subsequently said that Hemphill was the shooter. Morris was charged with murder and possession of a 9-millimeter handgun. The prosecution agreed to dismiss the murder charges if Morris pleaded guilty to possession of a .357 revolver. Years later, Hemphill was indicted for the murder; his DNA matched a blue sweater found in Morris’ apartment shortly after the murder. Hemphill elicited testimony that police had recovered 9-millimeter ammunition from Morris’ apartment, pointing to Morris as the culprit. Morris was not available to testify. The court allowed the prosecution to introduce parts of Morris’ plea allocation transcript to rebut Hemphill’s theory, reasoning that although Morris’ out-of-court statements had not been subjected to cross-examination, Hemphill’s arguments had “opened the door” and admission of the statements was reasonably necessary to correct a misleading impression. Hemphill was convicted.

The Supreme Court reversed. Admission of the plea allocution transcript violated Hemphill’s Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him. While the Sixth Amendment permits reasonable procedural rules concerning the exercise of a defendant’s confrontation right, the “door-opening principle” is a substantive principle that dictates what material is relevant and admissible. It was not for the trial 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, nor whether this evidence was reasonably necessary to correct that misleading impression.