Is a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause right violated by allowing into evidence a co-defendant’s redacted out-of-court confession that immediately incriminates the defendant due to the surrounding context?
This case asks the Supreme Court to determine whether admitting a co-defendant's redacted out-of-court confession that immediately inculpates a defendant based on the surrounding context results in a Confrontation Clause violation. Adam Samia was convicted of murder and other criminal charges at a joint trial after the United States introduced as evidence the redacted confession of Samia’s co-defendant that mentioned and described an accomplice. Samia argues that admitting his co-defendant’s confession violated his Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause right because the jury likely inferred that he was the unidentified accomplice in his co-defendant’s confession. Samia asserts that under the Supreme Court’s decision in Bruton v. United States, his co-defendant’s confession should have been excluded. The United States counters that no Sixth Amendment violation occurred, and the co-defendant’s confession was properly admitted because, consistent with Bruton, all references to Samia were redacted and a limiting instruction was given. This case has significant implications for the role of trial judges as gatekeepers, prosecutorial discretion and power, and the scope of protection the Sixth Amendment provides.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether admitting a co-defendant’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.
Adam Samia was employed as a security guard and, in 2011, traveled to the Philippines to work for a company called Echelon Associates. Brief for Petitioner, Adam Samia at 8. Echelon was a front company for the operations of Paul LeRoux, a South African national who ran a global criminal enterprise. Id. LeRoux had instructed one of his associates, Joseph Hunter, to assemble a “kill team” to commit murders in the Philippines. Brief for Respondent, United States of America at 3. Hunter recruited Samia for this team, and he also recruited David Stillwell, a friend of Samia’s. Id.
LeRoux, through Hunter, tasked Samia and Stillwell with murdering Catherine Lee, a local real-estate broker. Id. On February 13, 2012, Lee was found dead. Id. Three days later, Samia and Stillwell started transferring funds to the U.S. in increments of less than $10,000, and Samia transferred a total of $32,000. Id.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) arrested LeRoux in 2012, and he became a cooperating witness. Id. at 4. In 2013, the DEA arrested Hunter; and, Stillwell and Samia were arrested in 2015. Id. After his arrest, Stillwell confessed that he had been an accomplice to Samia in the murder of Catherine Lee. Id.
In 2017, a federal grand jury indicted Samia and Stillwell on several charges, including murder for hire. Id. Subsequently, the United States tried Hunter, Stillwell, and Samia jointly in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Id. at 2, 5.
Before the trial, the United States filed a motion in limine to address the admissibility of Stillwell’s confession regarding his role in Lee’s murder. Id. at 5. Stillwell himself would not be testifying at trial; thus, the Government sought to introduce evidence of a modified version of the confession that would eliminate Samia’s name in order to avoid potential Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause issues. Id. Also before trial, Samia filed a motion to sever his trial or, alternatively, to exclude the confession, arguing that if Stillwell’s confession were introduced at trial, it would violate his right of confrontation. Petitioner’s Brief at 11. At a pre-trial hearing, the court granted the Government’s motion and allowed it to introduce Stillwell’s confession, so long as the written version of the confession eliminated any explicit references to Samia and grammatical errors resulting from the redaction were removed. Respondent’s Brief at 5.
Accordingly, the Government made these alterations and introduced the confession at trial through the oral testimony of the DEA agent who heard the confession. Id. After the DEA agent’s testimony, the court instructed the jury that this confession was only admissible for purposes of the charges against Stillwell, and not for those against Samia. Id. Additionally, Leroux testified at trial that Samia and Stillwell murdered Lee. Id. at 8. Samia also testified and denied participating in any criminal activity with Echelon. Id. At closing argument, the Government again raised Stillwell’s confession. Id. at 9.
The jury convicted Stillwell, Hunter, and Samia on all counts. Id. Samia was sentenced to life in prison plus ten years of imprisonment, to be followed by five years of supervised release. Id.
On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court in relevant part, finding no issue with the admission of Stillwell’s confession in its redacted form. Id.
Samia petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari. The Supreme Court granted Samia’s petition on December 13, 2022.
CONFRONTATION CLAUSE JURISPRUDENCE
Samia argues that the Supreme Court developed a clear, bright-line rule in Bruton v. United States and that this rule requires a decision in his favor. Brief for Petitioner, Adam Samia at 18. In Bruton, the Court found that it was a violation of the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment for a prosecutor to use the confession of a non-testifying co-defendant as evidence of the defendant’s guilt. Id. at 28. Samia asserts that the Court’s holding was based on its reasoning that the confession of the co-defendant transformed the co-defendant into a witness who did not have to testify at trial or undergo cross-examination. Id. at 19–20. Samia differentiates Bruton from the later Richardson v. Marsh case, where a co-defendant’s confession was redacted and admitted into evidence once a limiting instruction was read to the jury. Id. at 25. Samia argues that, in Richardson, the confession was only incriminating when it was combined with later trial evidence. Id. at 25. Samia additionally relies on Gray v. Maryland, which found a redacted statement of confession inadmissible at trial, because it was an “obvious indication of alteration” that would create the same kind of inference as the unedited statements in Bruton. Id. at 26. Additionally, per Gray, Samia contends that the legal standard of whether a confession should be admissible is whether it directly incriminates the defendant, specifically asking the “kind of, not the simple fact of, inference.” Id. at 27, 29. Samia posits that the legal standard for violating the Confrontation Clause is predicated on the capacity of the jury to infer that the confession is directly accusing the defendant of participating in the criminal act. Id. at 29.
The United States counters that Samia’s reading of Bruton is impermissibly broad and that the proper, narrower reading of Bruton supports its position. Brief for Respondent in Opposition, United States of America at 6–7; Brief for Respondent, United States of America at 21. The United States contends that Richardson clarified that the Bruton legal standard was an exception, because the confession involved in Bruton explicitly named the defendant as a co-conspirator; thus, it was simply too incriminating. Brief for Respondent in Opposition at 7. The United States maintains that any concern over violating the Confrontation Clause can be resolved by redacting a confession. Id at 7. The United States argues that Gray limited the scope of permissible redacted confessions to those that merely acknowledge others’ involvement without directly referring to the existence of a co-defendant but did not go as far as to hold that any obvious inference to the co-defendant is prohibited. Id. at 8. The United States additionally notes that, because of the redactions in this case, there is no Confrontation Clause violation, even if the confession could help prove the criminal activity of the defendant once additional evidence is introduced. Id. at 10; Brief for Respondent at 21–23. The United States also relies on United States v. Straker, where the redacted confession used gender-neutral pronouns, but was consistent with Bruton even though a jury could reasonably infer that the confession might identify the defendant. Brief for Respondent in Opposition at 13. The United States maintains that a confession is only inadmissible under Bruton and the Confrontation Clause if it is facially inculpatory to the co-defendant, such as being overly redacted, specifying identifying information, or naming the co-defendant directly. Id.; Brief for Respondent at 20.
THE EFFECTIVENESS OF LIMITING INSTRUCTIONS
Samia contends that the Bruton rule governs even if there is a limiting instruction requiring that the jury consider the confession as only applying to the confessor, and not the codefendant. Brief for Petitioner at 20–21. Samia argues that the limiting instructions presented by judges to juries are often “intrinsically ineffective” and that inadmissible declarations cannot be erased from jurors’ minds. Id. Samia additionally posits that limiting instructions give an unfair advantage to the prosecution because juries often cannot ignore such evidence once presented to them. Id. at 22. Samia maintains that the limitations of the jury system must be acknowledged when dealing with evidence of confessions. See id. According to Samia, once confessions are allowed into evidence, the possibility of juries disregarding limiting instructions, and therefore relying on such confessions to prove guilt creates too high of a risk that the defendants’ rights under the Confrontation Clause will be violated. See id. Samia warns that this is especially true when there is no opportunity to cross-examine the confessor because it potentially undermines the credibility of the defendant to the jury without granting the defendant any opportunity to remedy this during trial. Id.
The United States counters that jury instructions are effective, and that jurors adhere to such instructions. Brief for Respondent in Opposition at 6. The United States cites United States v. Olano, for the proposition that jurors are presumed to be conscientious in following trial courts instructions as closely as possible. Brief for Respondent at 14. The United States argues that any attempt to undermine this presumption would undermine the functioning of criminal law within trial settings. Id. at 16. The United States supports this contention with a historical argument that the Confrontation Clause was written and developed within a legal context where jury instructions were seen as sufficient to remedy any potential prejudice to the defendant. Id. at 16–19.
THE ADMISSIBILITY ANALYSIS
Samia contends that when a judicial officer considers whether a confession is admissible under the Bruton standard, the judicial officer cannot simply rely only on a traditional “four-corners approach” that considers the confession alone. Brief for Petitioner at 33. Rather, Samia maintains, the judicial officer must also look at the surrounding context in which such a confession is made. Id. Samia posits that by considering the surrounding context, a judicial officer can curtail any attempt by prosecutors to make prejudicial inference claims about the confession to the jury. Id. at 34. Samia concedes that a court should limit the consideration of context to elements either “knowable in advance of trial or within the prosecution’s control.” Id. at 32. Samia elaborates that a context analysis should include the number of defendants, the arguments of the prosecutor, the surrounding questioning, and the evidence against the defendant. Id. at 34–37. Samia maintains that by engaging in such a contextual approach, the likelihood of a Confrontation Clause violation is significantly reduced. Id. at 38. Samia recognizes that, although though this approach could limit the number of joint trials, any practical benefits of joint trials are outweighed by the need to protect a criminal defendant’s rights under the Confrontation Clause. See id. at 40–41.
The United States counters that a contextual analysis would expand the scope of the Bruton decision beyond what the Supreme Court actually held. Brief for Respondent at 29. The United States posits that, under Samia’s approach, a judicial officer would have to bar a confession whenever there is a likelihood of the jury inferring, due to the surrounding context, that the confession identifies the defendant. Id. The United States argues that such an interpretation of Bruton is contrary to both the framers’ intent and the development of the Confrontation Clause. Id. at 33. The United States also maintains that a contextual analysis is contrary to the Court’s decision in Richardson because this case limited the scope of the “practical effects” of Bruton. Id. at 36. The United States posits that a contextual approach would force prosecutors to divulge much of their legal strategy at the beginning of trial in order to avoid a constitutional violation claim. Id. at 37. The United States also argues that Samia’s position is undermined by the notion that a contextual approach can be limited to only consider “knowable” facts of the case, or facts within the “prosecutor’s control,” as that standard would nonetheless allow certain prejudicial confessions into evidence. Id. Additionally, the United States notes that such an approach would make all co-defendants’ confessions presumptively subject to criticism under the Confrontation Clause. Id. at 38. The United States asserts that this presumption would hinder judicial efficiency because it would force more individual trials, instead of effective and efficient joint trials. Id. at 39.
LIMITS OF PROSECUTORIAL POWER
Samia argues that the Second Circuit’s narrow interpretation of the limitations for the use of a confession of a non-testifying co-defendant invites prosecutorial abuse. Brief for Petitioner at 33-34. According to Samia, this interpretation barely restrains prosecutors as they inevitably attempt to connect a defendant who did not confess to a confessing co-defendant’s statements. Id. If such statements were to be admissible, Samia suggests an expansion of a legal exception that would better account for the full context of a trial experience and the impact that this kind of evidence has on a jury. Id. at 31, 38. Without this, Samia contends that the prosecution obtains an unfair “windfall” at the expense of a defendant. Id.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in support of Samia, assert that accomplice confessions are notoriously unreliable and among the “lowest” type of evidence because criminals often want to pass the blame. Brief Amici Curiae of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, et al., in support of Petitioner at 8. On this point, the NACDL and ACLU explain that historically, under English common law, accomplice testimony was inadmissible because accomplices were “incompetent witnesses” given the high likelihood that they might lie to avoid punishment. Id. at 8-9. Thus, the NACDL and ACLU argue that prosecutors should only be allowed to use such accomplice testimony to implicate co-defendants in limited circumstances, such as when the testimony does not directly incriminate the co-defendants. Id.
The United States counters that courts have already sufficiently limited prosecutorial power to use the testimony of a non-testifying co-defendant because prosecutors must redact the confession. Brief for Respondent at 40. The United States further argues that prosecutors are forbidden from trying to minimize the effect of the redactions and limitations by, for instance, encouraging a jury to use a confession inappropriately. Id. Thus, the United States contends that no additional, special exception or rule that would account for a broader trial context is necessary or appropriate. Id.
Furthermore, Pennsylvania and 31 other states (Pennsylvania), in support of the United States, asserts that the use of a confession at trial is essential to the execution of justice because criminals typically do not clearly identify their accomplices to the police, either because they committed crimes with people they do not know or out of loyalty or fear of retaliation. Brief Amicus Curiae of Pennsylvania et al., in support of Respondent at 13. Therefore, according to Pennsylvania, prosecutors must be able to use accomplice confessions at trial, within the appropriate limitations the Court has already established, in order to fulfill their duty to administer justice. Id.
APPROPRIATE USE OF JOINT TRIALS
Samia argues that the prosecution enjoys a disproportionate advantage at joint trials because they effectively get away with using evidence that would otherwise be inadmissible in a severed trial. Brief for Petitioner at 31. Similarly, the National Association of Federal Defenders (NAFD), in support of Samia, argues that prosecutors nearly always reap the benefits of a joint trial, so the trial court should constrain the prosecution in order to manage constitutionally intolerable risks to defendants. Brief Amicus Curiae of National Association of Federal Defenders, in support of Petitioner at 22. NAFD also recognizes, however, that joint trials present an opportunity for efficiently trying multiple parties involved in a given case at the same time, and suggests that in order to preserve this benefit, a trial court need not conduct a separate trial for every single defendant. Id. Rather, NAFD argues against joint trials for the defendant(s) whose Sixth Amendment right of confrontation would be violated by the introduction of a co-defendant's confession, such as in Samia’s case. Id. at 20-21.
The United States counters that Samia’s argument against the power of prosecutors in joint trials “proves too much” because Samia would have the Court “over accommodate” for these concerns so as to grossly limit a prosecutor’s ability to use joint trials. Id. at 42. Moreover, the United States highlights the fact that federal trial judges already have the power to sever a joint trial if and when appropriate to further justice and counterbalance any prosecutorial advantage. Id. at 43. Similarly, Pennsylvania, in support of the United States, argues that separately trying multiple participants involved in the same crime would result in inconsistent benefits to defendants. Brief of Pennsylvania et al. at 27. For instance, Pennsylvania explains that, without joint trials, defendants with earlier trial dates would be disadvantaged by not being able to access the transcripts from preceding cases that could provide some strategic guidance at trial, while on the other hand, defendants with later trial dates would benefit from seeing the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecution’s case against the early defendants. Id.
- Jeffrey Mongiello, Samia v. United States Might Lower Threshold for Confession Use, Bloomberg Law (Feb. 15, 2023).
- Nate Raymond, U.S. Supreme Court to review murder-for-hire conviction, Reuters (Dec. 13, 2022).
- Debra Cassens Weiss, Supreme Court will decide criminal cases involving co-defendant’s statement, improper venue, ABA Journal (Dec. 15, 2022).