“You are not responsible for what your friends do, but you will be judged by the company you keep.”
“If 13 is unlucky, then 12 and 14 are guilty by association.”
“Pick your friends wisely or you will be guilty by association.”
“A man is judged by his friends, for the wise and the foolish never agreed.”
Innocent until proven guilty is the bedrock of our criminal justice system. But how do we protect that presumption of innocence? Specifically, how do we protect the presumption of innocence against prejudice where there are two defendants on trial, and one gives a confession that implicates the other? The 1968, the Supreme court of the United States answered this question in Bruton v. United States. Bruton has been the standard for 55 years… That is until June 23, 2023, when the Supreme Court issued the opinion Samia v. United States.
What it WAS: Bruton in a Nutshell
What were the protections laid out in Bruton v. United States, and why are they so important? In Bruton, the Supreme Court “held that a defendant is deprived of his rights under the Confrontation Clause when his codefendant’s incriminating confession is introduced at their joint trial, even if the jury is instructed to consider that confession only against the codefendant.”
Here’s the basics of the Bruton protections: Imagine you are on trial along with another defendant, we’ll call him Tattle Tim. During trial, Tim confesses to a crime you were both charged with. Tim might be the one talking but guess who the jury is looking at… you. Even if you are innocent, the jury now has an overwhelming impression that you are guilty. The Court in Bruton recognized this prejudice as well as the importance of preserving rights under the Confrontation Clause.
The Bruton Court recognized the potential dangers of this unfair prejudice which reflects in the opinion. No longer could prosecutors use joint trials to obtain two convictions based on a single confession. Codefendant confessions were deemed inadmissible even where names and identifiers in the confession were redacted. The Court went on to say the prejudice of a confession made by a codefendant was so substantial that it could not be cured by a limiting instruction. Unless the confessing defendant waived his Fifth Amendment privilege, the government had to either (1) conduct separate trials, or (2) refrain from introducing the confession during the joint trial.
What it IS Now: Samia v. United States
The Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion on June 23, 2023, that significantly reduces the protection under Bruton.
In this case, the Court was tasked with determining whether the Confrontation Clause bars the admission of a nontestifying codefendant’s confession where: (1) the confession has been modified to avoid directly identifying the nonconfessing codefendant and (2) the court offers a limiting instruction that jurors may consider the confession only with respect to the confessing codefendant. Certiorari was granted to determine whether the admission of codefendant’s altered confession, subject to a limiting instruction, violated Defendant’s rights under the Confrontation Clause.
As addressed in Bruton, the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause guarantees the right of a criminal defendant “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Therefore, this Clause forbids the introduction of out-of-court “testimonial” statements unless the witness is unavailable and the defendant has had the chance to cross-examine the witness previously. In Samia, the government sought to admit Codefendant’s formal, Mirandized confession made to authorities. This confession is testimonial, so it falls within reach of the Confrontation Clause and would therefore be inadmissible against Defendant.
The Court expressed that, “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. While some courts would omit the defendant’s name or substitute a reference to “another person” (or the like), it is unclear whether any courts considered such alterations to be necessary as a categorical matter. In any event, the combination of such alterations and an appropriate limiting instruction was generally sufficient to permit the introduction of such confessions.” The Supreme Court reasoned that considerable authority supported this approach citing the following cases: Sparf v. United States, 156 U. S. 51, 58 (1895); United States v. Ball, 163 U. S. 662, 672 (1896); State v. Workman, 15 S. C. 540, 545 (1881); Jones v. Commonwealth, 72 Va. 836, 839–840 (1878).
The Court found that the admission of Codefendant’s confession, accompanied by a limiting instruction, “did not run afoul of this Court’s precedents.” Further, Codefendant’s confession was redacted in a nonobvious way as to avoid naming Defendant, which the Court found to satisfy Bruton’s rule.
The Supreme Court itself admitted that “expanding the Bruton rule in the way Samia proposes would be inconsistent with longstanding practice and our precedents.” Further, mandating pre-trial hearings on the admissibility of a codefendant’s statement which place too much a burden on judicial economy. The Court also explained that mandating severance only where the prosecution wishes to introduce the confession of a nontestifying codefendant in a joint trial. is “too high” a price to pay.
Summarizing its holding, the Court concluded that, “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.” Therefore, 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.
With this opinion comes the end of the Bruton era and a whole new challenge for defendants to overcome: Navigating the prejudice that goes hand in hand with confessing codefendant’s.
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McNally was decided on June 24, 1987, and § 1346 was enacted as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which became effective November 18, 1988. Pub L 100-690, title VII, § 7603(b), 102 Stat. 4508 (Nov. 18, 1988).