A defendant in a multidefendant criminal trial who confesses to illegal conduct is making a direct admission regarding his acts. This confession is admissible against the confessing defendant in court. However, when a defendant’s confession also implicates a codefendant, the statement generally cannot be used as evidence in prosecuting the nonconfessing codefendant. The confession is considered inadmissible hearsay violating the nonconfessing co-defendant’s rights under the SixthAmendment confrontation clause.
Accomplice confessions have long been an issue due to concern over how ‘‘voluntary’’ the confessions extracted by police really are, as well as the reliability of statements given by confessing co-defendants eager to shift blame for their criminal acts to others. The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed this issue in a number of important cases.
In Delli Paoli v. United States (352 U.S. 232, 1957), the Court held that a confession admitted by one defendant that also implicated a co-defendant was admissible if jurors were told to disregard that part of the confession. The Delli Paoli holding led the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Evidence to recommend that the law be changed to disallow defendant statements implicating a co-defendant, unless all references to the co-defendant could be eliminated. This recommendation was rejected and states were temporarily left to make their own decisions regarding the admissibility of such statements.
The Court readdressed the issue in Bruton v. U.S. (391 U.S. 123, 1968), where it overruled its holding in Delli Paoli. It held that jury instructions limiting the consideration of statements implicating codefendants did not satisfy the Sixth Amendment confrontation clause. However, the Court soon relaxed its stance, finding that in certain circumstances, an error allowing such a statement (a Bruton error) could be deemed harmless and thus not amount to a breach of the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation rights.
In 1970, the Court concluded that an exception to the rule against hearsay must be evaluated by the dueprocess standards of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments instead of the Sixth Amendment confrontation clause. Its reasoning was that the confrontation clause was not designed to cope with the many factors involved in passing evidentiary rules and ensuring the fairness of trials. (See Dutton v. Evans, 400 U.S. 74, 1970.)
One long-recognized exception to the hearsay rule was when the evidence established the existence of a conspiracy. In such cases, a statement by a coconspirator made in furtherance of the conspiracy was admissible against other co-defendants and the declarant was not required to testify at trial. (See Rule 801 (d)(2)E), Federal Rules of Evidence.) In Bourjaily v. U.S., 483 U.S. 171 (1987), and U.S. v. Inadi, 475 U.S. 387 (1986), the Court held that this hearsay exception did not violate the confrontation clause. The Court later expanded this exception by allowing defendant pleas establishing the existence of a conspiracy to be admissible at trial without the declarant testifying.
EZEKIEL E. CORTEZ
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Confrontation and Compulsory Process