In 2006, a landmark Supreme Court ruling opened the door to use certain 911 calls as evidence in court proceedings where the victim refuses to testify. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants the accused the right to confront their accuser. Before this ruling, 911 calls would not be admitted into evidence when the caller refused, or could not be located, to testify because the accused could not cross-examine their accuser. The ruling declared that 911 calls occurring in the midst of an ongoing emergency were not testimonial in nature and, therefore, could not be used in court.
The Supreme Court heard two domestic violence cases during the session. In one case, Davis v. Washington, a woman called 911 alleging her ex-boyfriend had beaten her with his fists and fled when she picked up the phone to make the emergency call. In the other, Hammon v. Indiana, a wife signed a statement after police questioning alleging her husband “pushed, shoved and punched her.” In both cases, the victims did not testify in court, however, both defendants were convicted based on the earlier accounts the victims gave.
The Washington case was upheld, declaring the victim’s account “non-testimonial” since the information provided was in an attempt to locate the accused in the face of an active emergency. In the Indiana case, the judges ruled the wife’s police statement was testimonial because there was no longer an emergency, rendering the statement inadmissible unless the wife were to testify in court.
The 911 ruling applies to other types of crimes where the victim refuses, or is otherwise unable, to appear in court. This ruling makes the work of 911 call centers that much more important. Call takers must be diligent in establishing the existence of an emergency and making sure relevant facts are uncovered so responding law enforcement and emergency services personnel can be adequately prepared. In addition, 911 call recording equipment must be able to receive and record calls from multiple sources accurately while providing secure storage and easy retrieval.
911 Call Usage When Court Testimony is Provided
911 calls are important in criminal proceedings when the caller is available to testify as well. In the case of the murder of a Middle Tennessee State University basketball star in 2011, her boyfriend’s frantic 911 call documented a conversation he had with the defendant moments before discovering his girlfriend clinging to life in her apartment.
KC Anuna called 911 after finding his girlfriend, Tina Stewart, in her apartment bleeding to death from stab wounds. He pleaded with her to keep her head up and keep moving while talking to the 911 dispatcher. He also discloses that he spoke to Tina’s roommate, Shanterrica Madden, upon his arrival at the apartment complex and was told Tina was not home. Prosecutors used the 911 call along with the physical evidence and other testimony to establish the killing was a homicide, rather than an act of self defense as Madden alleged. Shanterrica Madden was sentenced to 25 years in prison for second degree murder and another 4 years for tampering with evidence. Another example of 911 call usage at trial is from a case many are familiar with.
Perhaps one of the most well known cases where 911 calls were used by the prosecution was the second degree murder trial of George Zimmerman who was acquitted of killing 17 year old Trayvon Martin in 2012. In the 8 years leading up to Martin’s killing, George Zimmerman made upwards of fifty 911 calls, complaining of everything from open garage doors to slow moving vehicles in his gated Florida neighborhood. Prosecutors sought to admit the calls as evidence of Zimmerman’s state of mind leading up to the alleged murder.
Judge Debra Nelson ruled only 5 of the calls could be played in court. Through these calls, prosecutors attempted to paint Zimmerman as a vigilante who harbored “ill will” towards mostly black males who regularly walked in or near his neighborhood. They alleged that Zimmerman targeted Trayvon Martin on the night he was killed. In a surprising verdict, Zimmerman was found not guilty of second degree murder and manslaughter in July 2013.
Is Your PSAP Ready to Record the Call That Ends up in Court?
With the use of smartphones, VoIP, and other high tech calling methods growing rapidly it’s imperative that 911 call centers have up to date, NG9-1-1 compliant equipment. The next 911 call your PSAP receives could be one that’s admitted into evidence and ends up swaying the jury towards the victim or the defendant. If it can’t be recorded or the recording fails, outcomes may change. A guilty person may walk. A family may never experience the closure they seek.