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Law School Case Brief

Richardson v. Marsh - 481 U.S. 200, 107 S. Ct. 1702 (1987)


Ordinarily, a witness whose testimony is introduced at a joint trial is not considered to be a witness "against" a defendant if the jury is instructed to consider that testimony only against a codefendant. This accords with the almost invariable assumption of the law that jurors follow their instructions.


At a joint Michigan criminal trial, one defendant objected to the state's introduction of a nontestifying codefendant's confession, even though the confession had been redacted to omit any reference to the defendant, and the jury was admonished not to use the confession in any way against the defendant. Defendant was convicted of two counts of felony-murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder, and defendant's direct state appeals were unsuccessful. Defendant then filed a habeas corpus petition in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, which alleged that the introduction of the codefendant's confession had violated the defendant's confrontation rights, but the District Court denied the petition. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, expressing the view that limiting the application of the inculpatory value of a codefendant's confession to the face of the confession itself ignored the true incriminating effect of such a confession. The appellate court further held that the confrontation rights of this defendant had been violated, where, on the basis of examining all the circumstances in the case -- including the other evidence introduced at trial and the prosecutor's closing argument -- there was a substantial risk that the jury had used the confession against the defendant. The appellate court concluded that the constitutional error was not harmless. Petitioner prison warden sought certiorari review.


Was the introduction of a nontestifying codefendant’s confession into evidence a violation the confrontation rights of the defendant, notwithstanding the fact that the confession had been redacted to omit any reference to the defendant?




The United States Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the appellate court, holding that the introduction of the codefendant's confession did not violate the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment because it was proper to presume that the jury would obey the limiting instruction. According to the Court, the improbability that a jury would be able to disregard a codefendant's expressly incriminating confession did not apply to a confession from which every reference to the defendant had been redacted. On remand, the lower court was directed to consider whether the prosecutor's comments seeking to undo the limiting instruction by urging the jury to use the confession against defendant served as a basis for the writ of habeas corpus in light of defendant's failure to object.

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