Tennessee v. Street

LOCATION: United States Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 83-2143
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 471 US 409 (1985)
ARGUED: Mar 18, 1985
DECIDED: May 13, 1985

Joshua Ira Schwartz - on behalf of the united states as amicus curiae in support of petitioner
Joshua I. Schwartz - on behalf of the United States as Amicus curiae in support of petitioner
Lance J. Rogers - on behalf of respondent
Robert A. Grunow - on behalf of petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Tennessee v. Street

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 18, 1985 in Tennessee v. Street

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in the State of Tennessee v. Harvey Street.

Mr. Grunow, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Robert A. Grunow:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This criminal case is here on a writ of certiorari to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals which reversed Defendant Street's first degree murder conviction and sentence of life imprisonment and remanded the case for a new trial.

The question before this Court is whether a nontestifying accomplice's confession can be constitutionally used on rebuttal to impeach the defendant's claim that his own confession was a coerced imitation of the accomplice's.

The facts relevant to this inquiry are as follows:

This prosecution arises out of the 1981 murder of a 72 year old man who was found hanged outside his burglarized home in a small mountain community in east Tennessee.

The defendant, a Clifford Peele, and five other young adults, were charged with murder, and defendant Street's case was severed from the others.

The state's proof in chief at Street's trial consisted of several confessions by the defendant and testimony of law enforcement officers concerning the scene of the crime that tended to corroborate certain details of the defendant's confession.

From the time of its opening argument through its case in chief, the state did not mention the existence of Peele's confession.

Thereafter, the defendant presented an alibi defense and took the stand.

In his direct testimony the defendant admitted that Peele had given a confession which had implicated the defendant in the murder.

The defendant also admitted that he gave a confession but maintained it was merely a coerced imitation of Peele's earlier confession.

With regard to this claim, the defendant maintained that prior to taking his confession, the sheriff repeatedly read him Peele's confession.

The defendant also claimed that when taking his confession, the sheriff interrupted him any time his account varied from Peele's and demanded that the defendant replicate Peele's version, which the defendant then did.

As part of its rebuttal proof, the state for the first time in this case sought to introduce Peele's confession into evidence.

Over objection, the state was allowed to introduce the confession for the limited, non-hearsay purpose of establishing that it was said, and with the express goal of impeaching the defendant's parroting claim with the most appropriate evidence available.

Limiting instructions were given on three occasions, and the record clearly indicates that the state carefully limited its use of and argument on the accomplice's confession to the impeachment purpose for which it was introduced.

Thereafter, the defendant was convicted of first degree murder and was given the only sentence permitted in this case under state law, life imprisonment.

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction of the defendant on the ground that the introduction of Peele's confession under the circumstances of this case denied the defendant his confrontation rights under the Sixth Amendment.

The state urges this Court to reverse the decision below since the limited introduction of the accomplice's confession for the impeachment purposes on rebuttal did not violate the defendant's confrontation rights.

We contend that limiting instructions were adequate in this case to avoid a confrontation clause violation for four reasons which I will summarize and then address in sequence.

First, the manner of introduction of the questioned evidence created little if any likelihood of improper jury consideration of that evidence.

Second, there existed legitimate and compelling reasons justifying the state's use of such evidence in light of the defendant's parroting claim.

Third, no suitable alternatives existed.

And fourth, under the circumstances of this case, the evidence was not devastating in nature.

In applying the confrontation clause to the admission into evidence of nontestifying accomplice confessions, Bruton, Douglas and the Parker plurality of this Court have addressed two basic questions: first, whether the manner of introduction of such evidence creates a substantial likelihood of improper consideration of that evidence against the defendant, and second, if so, whether the resulting risk of unfair prejudice as a matter of policy or practical necessity outweighs the ability of a jury to follow limiting instructions given.

We suggest that both questions are answered in the negative in this case.

As to the first basic question, the manner of introduction created little if any likelihood of improper consideration.

Unlike prior cases in this are where no legitimate inferences against the defendant could be drawn from the evidence placed before the jury, in this case there was a legitimate inference that could be drawn from the introduction of Peele's statement, namely, that Peele's confession was sufficiently different from the defendant's so as to negate the defendant's parroting claim--