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Law School Case Brief

Zafiro v. United States - 506 U.S. 534, 113 S. Ct. 933 (1993)

Rule:

When defendants properly have been joined under Fed. R. Crim. P. 8(b), a district court should grant a severance under Fed. R. Crim. P. 14 only if there is a serious risk that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right of one of the defendants, or prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence. When many defendants are tried together in a complex case and they have markedly different degrees of culpability, this risk of prejudice is heightened.

Facts:

Two of the four defendants were under surveillance when federal agents observed them carrying a large box. When the agents identified themselves, defendants dropped the box and ran into an apartment, belonging to one of the co-defendants. Upon entering the apartment, the agents found all four defendants there and, after a search was conducted resulting in the seizure of illegal drugs, they were all arrested. Defendants were brought to trial where they each brought motions for severance based upon mutually antagonistic defenses. Their motions were denied, and they were convicted. The convictions were all upheld by the court of appeals. Defendants sought further appellate review.

Issue:

Did the district court err in denying defendants’ motion for severance?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court upheld the court of appeals' judgment denying the motions for severance. The Court held that the defenses presented failed to rise to the level of mutual antagonism necessary for severance. The Court found that the government argued and offered sufficient evidence to find all four defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes charged. The Court concluded that defendants were not entitled to a severance merely because they would have a better chance of acquittal in separate trials.

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