The Supreme Court today affirms the death sentence in People v. Gonzalez for the 2006 murder in Long Beach of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy.  In the process, it takes a swipe at U.S. Supreme Court pronouncements on the right to confrontation.

The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Joshua Groban is signed by just six justices because Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar left the court a month ago, after he had participated in the case’s oral argument.  (See here.)

As is typical in direct death penalty appeals, the court rejects a number of different arguments.  Two of them were arguments the court specifically asked counsel to address at the hearing.

One of the two was a claim that testimony about DNA evidence violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment confrontation rights.  Instead of trying to decipher relevant U.S. Supreme Court case law — the opinion says the merits of the defendant’s argument “are difficult to assess given the divided state of the high court’s current confrontation clause jurisprudence” — the court concludes any violation was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Dismissing the other argument it had highlighted, the court concludes a statute requiring a wiretap application be made under oath by “a district attorney, or the person designated to act as district attorney in the district attorney’s absence” does not require a designated person’s application to “explain[ ] the circumstances of the district attorney’s absence.”

The defendant made another unsuccessful Sixth Amendment argument, this one asserting his right to counsel was violated by introducing into evidence statements he made to undercover agents before he was charged.  The court held the constitutional right didn’t attach until a complaint was filed against him, declining to adopt a rule advanced in a Justice John Paul Stevens concurrence that a person in custody is sufficiently “accused” to be entitled to the protections of the Sixth Amendment.’