Mattox v. United States

156 U.S. 237 (1895)

Quick Summary

Clyde Mattox (defendant) was convicted of murder and appealed on the basis that his right to confront witnesses was violated when testimonies of deceased witnesses from a prior trial were used against him. The issue was whether this practice infringed upon his Sixth Amendment rights under the Confrontation Clause.

The U.S Supreme Court concluded that it did not violate his rights, as cross-examination had occurred during the initial trial, and upheld his conviction.

Facts of the Case

Clyde Mattox (defendant) was convicted of the murder of John Mullen and appealed to the Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial. Subsequent trials followed: the second resulted in a hung jury, and before the third trial, two key witnesses had died.

Their testimonies from the first trial were read into evidence at the third trial, despite Mattox’s argument that this violated his constitutional right to confront witnesses against him, as guaranteed by the Confrontation Clause.

Mattox contended that reading the deceased witnesses’ prior testimonies infringed upon his rights, as he was unable to cross-examine them during the latest trial. The case reached the Supreme Court on these grounds, with Mattox seeking to overturn his conviction based on the alleged constitutional violation.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Mattox was initially convicted of murder in federal court.
  2. The Supreme Court reversed the judgment and remanded for a new trial.
  3. The second trial ended with a hung jury.
  4. By the third trial, key witnesses had died, and their prior testimonies were read into evidence.
  5. Mattox appealed, claiming his constitutional right to confront witnesses was violated.
  6. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide on this matter.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether reading the testimony of deceased witnesses from an earlier trial into evidence at a subsequent trial violates an accused’s constitutional right to confront witnesses as guaranteed by the Confrontation Clause.

Rule of Law

The Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause guarantees that, in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to be confronted with the witnesses against them. However, this right may be subject to exceptions recognized by law and precedent when it comes to deceased witnesses whose prior testimonies were given under oath and cross-examined.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court reasoned that the central purpose of the Confrontation Clause is to ensure personal examination and cross-examination of witnesses, which Mattox had previously been afforded during the initial trial. The Court highlighted that while it is generally required that a witness be present for cross-examination, exceptions do exist in common law for situations where such presence is not possible, as in cases of deceased witnesses.

The ruling emphasized that preserving testimony from a previous trial where cross-examination occurred does not violate the accused’s rights under the Confrontation Clause.

The Court drew parallels with other legal exceptions such as dying declarations and noted that strict adherence to procedural rules should not prevent justice from being served. The Court determined that excluding the testimony of deceased witnesses would excessively impair the rights of the public and could lead to miscarriages of justice if criminals were set free solely due to a witness’s death.


The Supreme Court held that admitting transcribed testimony from deceased witnesses who were previously cross-examined did not violate Mattox’s Sixth Amendment rights. The conviction was therefore upheld.

Dissenting Opinions

The dissenting opinion argued that excluding evidence of contradictory statements made by a deceased witness would unjustly favor the prosecution while depriving the defense of crucial impeachment evidence. The dissent expressed concern that rigid adherence to procedural rules regarding witness impeachment could result in inequitable outcomes for defendants.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Confrontation Clause allows exceptions for reading prior testimony of deceased witnesses if cross-examination was previously possible.
  2. The principles of justice and public policy may necessitate deviations from strict procedural rules in criminal proceedings.
  3. The Supreme Court seeks to balance an individual’s rights with broader societal interests in upholding convictions where key witness testimonies are preserved from earlier proceedings.

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