Samia v. U.S.: Nontestifying codefendant’s confession is admissible in joint trial if defendant is identified as “other person” and limiting instruction is given
By Greg Mermelstein, Deputy Director & General Counsel, Missouri Public Defender
In a joint trial of codefendants, admission of a nontestifying codefendant’s confession which has been modified to avoid directly identifying the nonconfessing codefendant does not violate the Confrontation Clause, when the court gives a limiting instruction to consider the confession only against the confessing defendant, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 23 in Samia v. United States.
Dissenting justices said the opinion greatly diminishes Bruton v. United States (1968).
Adam Samia, Joseph Hunter and Carl Stillwell were jointly tried for a murder which took place in a van.
Stillwell told police he drove the van, but claimed Samia shot the victim.
At trial, Stillwell and Hunter admitted they were participants in the murder, but Samia maintained his innocence.
Because Stillwell did not testify and his full confession would have inculpated Samia, the district court allowed the Government to admit Stillwell’s confession in a manner intended to eliminate Samia’s name while avoiding any obvious indication of redaction.
A police agent was allowed to testify that Stillwell “described a time when the other person he was with pulled the trigger on the [victim] in a van”.
The court also gave the jury a limiting instruction that the agent’s testimony was admissible only as to Stillwell and should not be considered as to Samia or Hunter.
The jury convicted all three codefendants.
Samia appealed. He claimed admission of Stillwell’s confession – even as altered and with a limiting instruction – violated the Confrontation Clause because other evidence and statements at trial enabled the jury to immediately infer that the “other person” described in the confession was Samia.
The Second Circuit affirmed the conviction.
The Supreme Court affirmed, in a 6-3 opinion.
“For most of our Nation’s history, longstanding practice allowed a nontestifying codefendant’s confession to be admitted in a joint trial so long as the jury was properly instructed not to consider it against the nonconfessing defendant”, the Court said.
“This historical evidentiary practice is in accord with the law’s broader assumption that jurors can be relied upon to follow the trial judge’s instructions”, the Court said. “Evidence at trial is often admitted for a limited purpose, accompanied by a limiting instruction.”
Three cases lead to the outcome in Samia’s case, the Court said.
“In Bruton v. United States, this Court recognized a narrow exception to the presumption that juries follow their instructions, holding that a defendant is deprived of his Sixth Amendment right of confrontation when the facially incriminating confession of a nontestifying codefendant is introduced at their joint trial, even with a proper instruction”, the Court said.
In Richardson v. Marsh (1987), the Court “declined to extend” Bruton further to “confessions that do not name the defendant”, the Court said.
And in Gray v. Maryland (1998), the Court “qualified Richardson by holding that certain obviously redacted confessions might be ‘directly accusatory’ and thus fall within Bruton’s rule, even if they did not specifically use a defendant’s name.”
Gray held that substituting the defendant’s name in a confession with a blank space or the word “deleted” violated the Confrontation Clause.
“Viewed together, the Court’s precedents distinguish between confessions that directly implicate a defendant and those that do so indirectly,” the Court said.
“Here, the District Court’s admission of Stillwell’s confession, accompanied by a limiting instruction, did not run afoul of this Court’s precedents”, the Court said.
“Stillwell’s confession was redacted to avoid name Samia, satisfying Bruton’s rules”, the Court said. “And, it was not obviously redacted in a manner resembling the confession in Gray, the neutral references to some ‘other person’ were not akin to an obvious blank or the word ‘deleted’”.
“The Confrontation Clause ensures that defendants have the opportunity to confront witnesses against them, but it does not provide a freestanding guarantee against the risk of potential prejudice that may arise inferentially in a joint trial”, the Court concluded. “Here, the Clause was not violated by the admission of a nontestifying codefendant’s confession that did not directly inculpate the defendant and was subject to a proper limiting instruction.”
Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Jackson dissented.
“One might wonder after reading today’s decision whether Bruton is the next precedent on the Court’s chopping block”, Kagan said.
“The one reason it may not be is that there is now no need for formal overruling”, she said. “Under this decision, prosecutors can always circumvent Bruton’s protections.”
Prosecutors “can simply replace [defendant] Mary’s name with ‘a woman’ and the Bruton issue will go away”, Kagan said.
She said the Confrontation Clause, in a joint trial of codefendants, will become “a shell of its former self.