Idaho v. Wright
Decided on June 27, 1990; 497 US 805

The admissibility of a young girl's statements regarding sexual
abuse by her parents is challenged in the courts


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (procedure), 6th Amendment, Confrontation Clause, juvenile witnesses, residual hearsay exception 

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the admission at trial of statements made by a child to an examining pediatrician violate a defendant's rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment? 


A. Background:

Laura Lee Wright (respondent) was charged with two counts of lewd conduct with a child under sixteen under Idaho state law after it was alleged that she had restrained her 5 1/2 and 2 1/2 year-old daughters while her ex-husband had sexual intercourse with them.

At the trial, it was agreed by the court and all the parties that the 2 1/2 year old daughter was not "capable of communicating to the jury," and could not testify in the case.  The court instead admitted statements the child made to Dr. John Jambura, a pediatrician who was experienced in child abuse cases.  These statements were admitted under Idaho's residual hearsay exception.  Dr. Jambura testified that the 2 1/2 year old was reluctant to answer questions about her own abuse, but, without prompting, volunteered information about her older sister's abuse.

Respondent was convicted on both counts of lewd conduct and appealed the conviction involving her younger daughter.  The Idaho Supreme Court reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial, finding that the admission of the statements the 2 1/2 year old child made to the pediatrician violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.  The court also noted that because Dr. Jambura conducted the interview of the child without procedural safeguards, such as videotaping the interview and refraining from asking leading questions, the statements lacked "particularized guarantees of trustworthiness," and therefore the statements should not have been admitted.  The court reversed respondent's conviction on the count involving the younger daughter and remanded for a new trial.  The US Supreme Court granted certiorari.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Rolf Michael Kehne argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.
James T. Jones, Attorney General of Idaho, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were John J. McMahon, Chief Deputy Attorney General, and Myrna A. I. Stahman, Deputy Attorney General.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Margaret A. Berger and Steven R. Sharpiro filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union, as amici curiae, urging affirmance. 

Natman Schaye filed a brief for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as amici curiae, also urging affirmance.

Deputy Solicitor General Bryson, Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Dennis, and Michael R. Dreeben filed a brief for the United States, as amici curiae, urging reversal. 

Additionally, a brief of amici curiae urging reversal was filed for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania et al. by Ernest D. Preate, Jr., Attorney General of Pennsylvania, and Marylou Barton, Chief Deputy Attorney General; Douglas B. Baily, Attorney General of Alaska; Robert K. Corbin, Attorney General of Arizona; Steve Clark, Attorney General of Arkansas; Duane Woodard, Attorney General of Colorado; Charles M. Oberly III, Attorney General of Delaware; Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General of Florida; Neil F. Hartigan, Attorney General of Illinois; Linley E. Pearson, Attorney General of Indiana; Tom Miller, Attorney General of Iowa; Robert T. Stephan, Attorney General of Kansas; Frederic J. Cowan, Attorney General of Kentuck; William J. Guste, Jr., Attorney General of Louisiana; Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland; James M. Shannon, Attorney General of Massachusetts; Frank J. Kelly, Attorney General of Michigan; Mike Moore, Attorney General of Mississippi; William L. Webster, Attorney General of Missouri; Marc Racicot, Attorney General of Montana; Robert M. Spire, Attorney General of Nebraska; Brian McKay, Attorney General of Nevada; John P. Arnold, Attorney General of New Hampshire; Robert Del Tufo, Attorney General Designate of New Jersey; Hal Stratton, Attorney General of New Mexico; Lacy H. Thornburg, Attorney General of North Carolina; Nicholas Spaeth, Attorney General of North Dakota; Robert H. Henry, Attorney General of Oklahoma; T. Travis Medlock, Attorney General of South Carolina; Roger A. Tellinghuisen, Attorney General of South Dakota; Paul Van Dam, Attorney General of Utah; Jeffrey L. Amestoy, Attorney General of Vermont; Godfrey R. de Castro, Attorney General of the Virgin Islands; Mary Sue Terry, Attorney General of Virginia; and Joseph B. Meyer, Attorney General of Wyoming.


"The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, provides: 'In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right... to be confronted with the witnesses against him.'...

Of the factors the trial court found relevant, only two relate to circumstances surrounding the making of the statements: whether the child had a motive to 'make up a story of this nature' and whether, given the child's age, the statements are of the type 'that one would expect a child to fabricate.'  The other factors on which the trial court relied, however, such as the presence of physical evidence of abuse, the opportunity of respondent to commit the offense, and the older daughter's corroborating identification, relate instead to whether other evidence existed to corroborate the truth of the statement. These factors, as we have discussed, are irrelevant to a showing of the 'particularized guarantees of trustworthiness necessary for admission of hearsay statements under the Confrontation Clause.'

We think the Supreme Court of Idaho properly focused on the presumptive unreliability of the out-of-court statements and on the suggestive manner in which Dr. Jambura conducted the interview. Viewing the totality of the circumstances surrounding the younger daughter's responses to Dr. Jambura's questions, we find no special reason for supposing that the incriminating statements were particularly trustworthy. The younger daughter's last statement regarding the abuse of the older daughter, however, presents a closer question. According to Dr. Jambura, the younger daughter 'volunteered' that statement 'after she sort of clammed-up.'  Although the spontaneity of the statement and the change in demeanor suggest that the younger daughter was telling the truth when she made the statement, we note that it is possible that '[i]f there is evidence of prior interrogation, prompting, or manipulation by adults, spontaneity may be an inaccurate indicator of trustworthiness.'... Moreover, the statement was not made under circumstances of reliability comparable to those required, for example, for the admission of excited utterances or statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment... we agree with the court below that the State has failed to show that the younger daughter's incriminating statements to the pediatrician possessed sufficient 'particularized guarantees of trustworthiness' under the Confrontation Clause to overcome that presumption.

The State does not challenge the Idaho Supreme Court's conclusion that the Confrontation Clause error in this case was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, and we see no reason to revisit the issue. We therefore agree with that court that respondent's conviction involving the younger daughter must be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Idaho is affirmed."

Held: The judgment of the Supreme Court of Idaho is affirmed.
Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con
  • Connor, S. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the US Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Idaho Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win