This Report summarizes cases granted review on December 13, 2022 (Part I).
Case Granted Review: Samia v. United States, 22-196
Samia v. United States, 22-196. At issue is “[w]hether admitting a codefendant’s redacted out-of-court confession that immediately inculpates a defendant based on the surrounding context violates the defendant’s rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.” Petitioner Adam Samia worked as a hitman for Paul LeRoux, the head of “a transnational criminal organization” through which “he committed ‘an array of crimes worthy of a James Bond villain.’” In January 2012, LeRoux ordered the murder of Catherine Lee, a real estate broker in the Philippines whom LeRoux believed had stolen money from him. Lee was murdered by two individuals hired by LeRoux’s underling Billy Hunter. Samia and one Carl Stillwell were arrested and charged with being those two men. At their joint trial in the Southern District of New York, the government introduced a redacted version of Stillwell’s confession. The unredacted version directly implicated Samia, and so could not be introduced in that form under Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968), which held that the admission of a non-testifying codefendant’s confession expressly implicating the defendant violates the Confrontation Clause even if the jury is instructed not to consider the confession as to the defendant. But the government proposed redactions, and the district court added more redactions. As redacted, Stillwell’s confession did not name Samia and read as though there were no redactions. At trial, a DEA agent testified regarding the contents of Stillwell’s statement in a manner consistent with its approved form, avoiding any reference to Samia’s identity. The agent recounted Stillwell’s statements, for example, that “he had met somebody else” in the Philippines; that “the person that he was with” had carried a firearm; and that “the other person he was with pulled the trigger on that woman,” Catherine Lee, “in a van that he and Mr. Stillwell w[ere] driving.” The jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts against all three defendants, and the court sentenced Samia to a life term of imprisonment.
On appeal, the Second Circuit vacated the defendants’ convictions on certain counts, but rejected the defendants’ other claims and upheld the remaining convictions, for conspiring to kidnap and murder in a foreign country and conspiring to launder money. And in particular, the Second Circuit held that the admission of a version of Stillwell’s statement through the DEA agent’s testimony did not violate Samia’s Confrontation Clause right under Bruton. The court stated that, in considering whether a redaction is sufficient, the court asks “whether the neutral allusion [to the codefendant] sufficiently conceals the fact of explicit identification to eliminate the overwhelming probability that a jury hearing the confession at a joint trial will not be able to follow an appropriate limiting instruction.” The court rejected Samia’s argument that, given the context, “jurors would immediately infer that Stillwell’s references to ‘another person’ referred to [Samia] himself.” Rather, the court cited Second Circuit precedent requiring it to consider the redacted statement “separate and apart from any other evidence admitted at trial.” Applying that standard, the court of appeals concluded that the redactions avoided any prejudicial error because the DEA agent used “neutral terms” that did not “explicit[ly] identif[y]” Samia.
Samia argues that the Second Circuit’s “decision implicates a circuit conflict on the question whether a codefendant’s redacted out-of-court confession must be assessed in isolation or in its broader context when determining whether a violation of the Confrontation Clause has occurred.” If Stillwell’s confession were assessed in its broader context, Samia argues, it would be “immediately obvious that the confession could refer only to [Samia].” The conflict among the circuits arises over their reading of two post-Bruton cases. In Richardson v. Marsh, 481 U.S. 200 (1987), the Court held that where the co-defendant’s confession was redacted to “eliminate not only the defendant’s name, but any reference to his or her existence,” it fell outside the scope of the Bruton. By contrast, in Gray v. Maryland, 523 U.S. 185 (1998), the Court held that a redacted confession violated the Bruton rule where the fact of redaction was obvious to the jury. In that case, the prosecution had redacted the confession by substituting a blank (or the word “deleted”) for the defendant’s name. Unlike the confession in Richardson, the Gray confession “refer[red] directly to the existence of the nonconfessing defendant.” Where the fact of redaction is obvious to the jury, the Court explained, the jury will “realize that the confession refers specifically to the defendant,” even if the prosecution does not “blatantly link the defendant to the deleted name.” Samia relies on Gray, saying it “adopted a more nuanced view of the role that juror inferences should play in determining whether a Confrontation Clause violation has occurred than the court of appeals below applied. Where a confession invites such inferential reasoning because it obviously refers to another person, a juror’s inferences as to who that person might be should be considered.“ Samia maintains that, “[i]n applying a ‘four-corners’ rule that considers the redacted confession only in isolation, the court of appeals failed to take account of the obvious inference created by the surrounding context—namely, the confession’s evident reference to another person; the limited number of codefendants; and the prosecution’s statements directly connecting petitioner to the unnamed person in the confession. In light of that important context, the concerns underlying the Bruton rule are plainly implicated, and the court of appeals erred by holding that there was no Confrontation Clause violation.”
The United States reads Richardson as having held “that if a co-defendant’s confession incriminates the defendant not ‘on its face,’ but ‘only when linked’ by inference to other evidence, Bruton’s ‘foundation[al]’ hypothesis—that the jury will be unable to resist using the confession against the defendant—no longer applies.” And the United States notes that Gray “concede[d] that Richardson placed outside the scope of Bruton’s rule those statements that incriminate inferentially.” It noted that “[t]he inferences at issue in Gray were ‘inferences that a jury ordinarily could make immediately, even were the confession the very first item introduced at trial,’ and the confession ‘facially incriminat[ed]’ Gray.” And so the United States insists that the Second Circuit got it right here: “Because the modified statement was not ‘facially’ inculpatory, and would not lead the jury to petitioner ‘even were [it] the very first item introduced at trial,’ it avoided a Bruton problem, and its introduction with appropriate limiting instructions did not violate the Confrontation Clause.” (Citation omitted.)
Editor’s note: Some of the language in the background sections of the summaries below was taken from the petitions for writ of certiorari and briefs in opposition.