LOCATION: Residence of Cynthia Knighton
DOCKET NO.: 85-1433
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
CITATION: 481 US 200 (1987)
ARGUED: Jan 14, 1987
DECIDED: Apr 21, 1987
GRANTED: Jun 09, 1986
Lawrence S. Robbins – on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae, in support of Petitioner
R. Steven Whalen – on behalf of Respondent
Timothy A. Baughman – on behalf of Petitioner
Facts of the case
Clarissa Marsh, Benjamin Williams, and Kareem Martin were charged with the assault of Cynthia Knighton and the murder of her four-year-old son, Koran, and her aunt, Ollie Scott. Despite Marsh’s objections, she and Williams were tried jointly. The prosecution entered Williams’ confession into evidence, although the confession was redacted to prevent any mention of anyone other than Williams and Martin being involved in the crime. In his closing argument, the prosecution admonished the jury not to use Williams’ confession against Marsh but linked her testimony to events in the confession. The judge also instructed the jury not to use the confession against Marsh. Marsh was convicted, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Michigan Supreme Court denied the appeal.
Marsh filed a writ of habeas corpus and argued that the introduction of the confession violated her rights under the Confrontation Clause. The district court denied the petition. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed.
In a joint trial, does the confession of one defendant without that defendant taking the stand violate the Confrontation Clause?
Media for Richardson v. Marsh
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 21, 1987 in Richardson v. Marsh
Richardson versus Marsh which comes to us from the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit also involves a Bruton issue.
Specifically the question is whether Bruton applies when the non testifying codefendant’s confession has been redacted to omit with all reference to the defendant.
But the defendant is nonetheless linked to the confession by evidence properly admitted later in the trial.
Respondent Clarissa Marsh was tried jointly with Benjamin Williams for murder and robbery.
At their trial Williams confession was admitted over respondent’s objection.
That confession had been redacted to omit all reference to respondent indeed to omit all indication that anyone other than Williams and the third accomplice named Martin had participated in the crime.
In his confession, Williams described the conversion he had had with Martin as they drove to the victims’ home, during which Martin said that he would have kill the victims after robbing them.
The jury was admonished at the trial not to use Williams’ confession in any way against the respondent.
Williams did not testify.
In her testimony however, respondent admitted being in the car, with Williams and Martin but claimed that she had not heard their conversation.
Respondent insisted that she did not realize that the victims were to be robbed and killed.
Respondent was convicted in her conviction was affirmed by the State Courts.
Petition for the writ of habeas corpus was denied by the Federal District Court, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed holding that respondent was entitled to a new trial under Bruton.
In our opinion filed today, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.
We hold that the Confrontation Clause is not violated by the admission of a non testifying codefendant’s confession with a proper limiting instruction when, as here, the confession is redacted to eliminate all reference to the defendant’s existence.
There are two important distinctions between this case and Bruton which cause it to fall outside of the narrow exception Bruton recognized, to the almost invariable assumption that jurors follow their instructions.
First where a confession is not incriminating on its face as was the confession in Bruton but becomes incriminating only when linked with evidence introduced later at the trial, it is easier for the jurors to follow their instructions to disregard it.
Second if limited to facially incriminating confessions, Bruton can be complied with through the simple process of redaction.
When extended to confessions that only become incriminating by reason of evidence introduced later in the trial, application of the Bruton exception becomes inordinately disruptive of the criminal justice system.
Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion which is joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall.