Brief Fact Summary. Eulogio Cruz (Petitioner) was arrested and, along with his brother Benjamin Cruz (co-defendant), tried and convicted of murder for the shooting of a gas station attendant. At trial, the prosecution called a witness who testified that Petitioner had confessed to the murder; the prosecution also introduced evidence of a tape-recorded confession that co-defendant had made to police. Petitioner appealed his conviction to the New York Court of Appeals, which affirmed, and Petitioner, on certiorari, appeals that decision here.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. When a co-defendant’s confession implicates a criminal defendant, and the co-defendant does not testify at trial, the admission of the confession violates the criminal defendant’s rights under the 6th amendment Confrontation Clause, even when the defendant’s own confession corroborates the co-defendant’s confession and jury instructions are given that instruct the jury to disregard the co-defendant’s confession in deciding the criminal defendant’s guilt.
Issue. Was it a violation of Petitioner’s 6th amendment Confrontation Clause rights for the trial court to allow co-defendant’s videotaped confession to be admitted into evidence along with a limiting instruction given to the jury that it was not to use co-defendant’s confession in determining Petitioner’s guilt?
Held. Reversed and remanded. Yes; Petitioner’s 6th amendment Confrontation Clause rights were violated by the admission of co-defendant’s tape-recorded confession, despite the fact that Petitioner’s own confession “interlocked” with co-defendant’s, and despite the limiting instruction given by the trial judge to the jury.
Dissent. Justices White (writing), Rehnquist, Powell, and O’Connor dissent, arguing that the Confrontation Clause rights of Petitioner were not violated because his own confession corroborated and “interlocked” with the co-defendant’s confession. Specifically, the dissent points out that the co-defendant’s confession was consistent with the Petitioner’s confession, “with respect to all elements of the crime,” and that the co-defendant’s confession would not have subjected Petitioner to any further incrimination that was not already present by virtue of Petitioner’s own confession. In short, the co-defendant’s confession, the dissent argues, was no more incriminating than Petitioner’s own confession, and therefore its admission was not violative of the Confrontation Clause.
Discussion. In holding that co-defendant’s confession that incriminated Petitioner was not admissible against Petitioner, the Court turned to its past decision in Bruton v. U.S., 391 U.S. 123 (1968), which 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.” The Court reasoned that Petitioner’s own confession did not make Bruton inapplicable, since Petitioner’s confession was introduced to the jury through the testimony of Noberto Cruz, and the jury could choose to believe or not believe that testimony. Specifically, the Court stated, “the precise content and even the existence of petitioner’s own confession were open to question, since they depended upon acceptance of Norberto’s testimony, whereas the incriminating confession of codefendant . . . was on videotape.”
The Court went on to explain that the effect of co-defendant’s confession on the jury was likely to be so significant that the jury would almost certainly use it to determine Petitioner’s guilt, especially since the tape-recorded confession of co-defendant was similar to Petitioner’s own confession. While the jury could choose to believe or not believe Noberto Cruz’s testimony concerning Petitioner’s own confession, co-defendant’s confession was video-taped and unavoidable, and because it matched what Noberto Cruz alleged Petitioner had confessed to, Petitioner’s Confrontation Clause rights were violated. The Court explained:
A codefendant’s confession will be relatively harmless if the incriminating story it tells is different from that which the defendant himself is alleged to have told, but enormously damaging if it confirms, in all essential respects, the defendant’s alleged confession. It might be otherwise if the defendant were standing by his confession, in which case it could be said that the codefendant’s confession does no more than support the defendant’s very own case. But in the real world of criminal litigation, the defendant is seeking to avoid his confession — on the ground that it was not accurately reported, or that it was not really true when made. In the present case, for example, petitioner sought to establish that Norberto had a motive for falsely reporting a confession that never in fact occurred. In such circumstances a codefendant’s confession that corroborates the defendant’s confession significantly harms the defendant’s case, whereas one that is positively incompatible give
s credence to the defendant’s assertion that his own alleged confession was nonexistent or false . . . Having decided Bruton, we must face the honest consequences of what it holds.