Bruton v. United States

United States Supreme Court

391 U.S. 123, 88 S.Ct. 1620, 20 L.Ed.2d 476 (1968)


Mr. Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the Court.


This case presents the question, last considered in Delli Paoli v. United States, 352 U.S. 232 [1957], whether the conviction of a defendant at a joint trial should be set aside although the jury was instructed that a codefendant’s confession inculpating the defendant had to be disregarded in determining his guilt or innocence.


A joint trial of petitioner and one Evans in the District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri resulted in the conviction of both by a jury on a federal charge of armed postal robbery, 18 U.S.C. 2114. A postal inspector testified that Evans orally confessed to him that Evans and petitioner committed the armed robbery. The postal inspector obtained the oral confession, and another in which Evans admitted he had an accomplice whom he would not name, in the course of two interrogations of Evans at the city jail in St. Louis, Missouri, where Evans was held in custody on state criminal charges. Both petitioner and Evans appealed their convictions to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. That court set aside Evans’ conviction on the ground that his oral confessions to the postal inspector should not have been received in evidence against him. … However, the court, relying upon Delli Paoli, affirmed petitioner’s conviction because the trial judge instructed the jury that although Evans’ confession was competent evidence against Evans it was inadmissible hearsay against petitioner and therefore had to be disregarded in determining petitioner’s guilt or innocence. … We granted certiorari to reconsider Delli Paoli. … The Solicitor General has since submitted a memorandum stating that “in the light of the record in this particular case and in the interests of justice, the judgment below should be reversed and the cause remanded for a new trial.” The Solicitor General states that this disposition is urged in part because “[h]ere it has been determined that the confession was wrongly admitted against [Evans] and his conviction has been reversed, leading to a new trial at which he was acquitted. To argue, in this situation, that [petitioner’s] conviction should nevertheless stand may be to place too great a strain upon the [Delli Paoli] rule - at least, where, as here, the other evidence against [petitioner] is not strong.” We have concluded, however, that Delli Paoli should be overruled. We hold that, because of the substantial risk that the jury, despite instructions to the contrary, looked to the incriminating extrajudicial statements in determining petitioner’s guilt, admission of Evans’ confession in this joint trial violated petitioner’s right of cross-examination secured by the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment. We therefore overrule Delli Paoli and reverse.


The basic premise of Delli Paoli was that it is “reasonably possible for the jury to follow” sufficiently clear instructions to disregard the confessor’s extrajudicial statement that his codefendant participated with him in committing the crime. … If it were true that the jury disregarded the reference to the codefendant, no question would arise under the Confrontation Clause, because by hypothesis the case is treated as if the confessor made no statement inculpating the nonconfessor. But since Delli Paoli was decided this Court has effectively repudiated its basic premise. Before discussing this, we pause to observe that in Pointer v. Texas, 380 U.S. 400 [1965], we confirmed “that the right of cross-examination is included in the right of an accused in a criminal case to confront the witnesses against him” secured by the Sixth Amendment, … “a major reason underlying the constitutional confrontation rule is to give a defendant charged with crime an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses against him.” …


We applied Pointer in Douglas v. Alabama, 380 U.S. 415 [1965], in circumstances analogous to those in the present case. There two persons, Loyd and Douglas, accused of assault with intent to murder, were tried separately. Loyd was tried first and found guilty. At Douglas’ trial the State called Loyd as a witness against him. An appeal was pending from Loyd’s conviction and Loyd invoked the privilege against self-incrimination and refused to answer any questions. The prosecution was permitted to treat Loyd as a hostile witness. Under the guise of refreshing Loyd’s recollection the prosecutor questioned Loyd by asking him to confirm or deny statements read by the prosecutor from a document purported to be Loyd’s confession. These statements inculpated Douglas in the crime. We held that Douglas’ inability to cross-examine Loyd denied Douglas “the right of cross-examination secured by the Confrontation Clause.” … We noted that “effective confrontation of Loyd was possible only if Loyd affirmed the statement as his. However, Loyd did not do so, but relied on his privilege to refuse to answer.” … The risk of prejudice in petitioner’s case was even more serious than in Douglas. In Douglas we said, “Although the Solicitor’s reading of Loyd’s alleged statement, and Loyd’s refusals to answer, were not technically testimony, the Solicitor’s reading may well have been the equivalent in the jury’s mind of testimony that Loyd in fact made the statement; and Loyd’s reliance upon the privilege created a situation in which the jury might improperly infer both that the statement had been made and that it was true.” …. Here Evans’ oral confessions were in fact testified to, and were therefore actually in evidence. That testimony was legitimate evidence against Evans and to that extent was properly before the jury during its deliberations. Even greater, then, was the likelihood that the jury would believe Evans made the statements and that they were true - not just the self-incriminating portions but those implicating petitioner as well. Plainly, the introduction of Evans’ confession added substantial, perhaps even critical, weight to the Government’s case in a form not subject to cross-examination, since Evans did not take the stand. Petitioner thus was denied his constitutional right of confrontation.


Delli Paoli assumed that this encroachment on the right to confrontation could be avoided by the instruction to the jury to disregard the inadmissible hearsay evidence. But, as we have said, that assumption has since been effectively repudiated. True, the repudiation was not in the context of the admission of a confession inculpating a codefendant but in the context of a New York rule which submitted to the jury the question of the voluntariness of the confession itself. Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368 [1964]. Nonetheless the message of Jackson for Delli Paoli was clear. We there held that a defendant is constitutionally entitled at least to have the trial judge first determine whether a confession was made voluntarily before submitting it to the jury for an assessment of its credibility. More specifically, we expressly rejected the proposition that a jury, when determining the confessor’s guilt, could be relied on to ignore his confession of guilt should it find the confession involuntary. … Significantly, we supported that conclusion in part by reliance upon the dissenting opinion of Mr. Justice Frankfurter for the four Justices who dissented in Delli Paoli. …


That dissent challenged the basic premise of Delli Paoli that a properly instructed jury would ignore the confessor’s inculpation of the nonconfessor in determining the latter’s guilt. “The fact of the matter is that too often such admonition against misuse is intrinsically ineffective in that the effect of such a nonadmissible declaration cannot be wiped from the brains of the jurors. The admonition therefore becomes a futile collocation of words and fails of its purpose as a legal protection to defendants against whom such a declaration should not tell.” … The dissent went on to say, as quoted in the cited note in Jackson, “The government should not have the windfall of having the jury be influenced by evidence against a defendant which, as a matter of law, they should not consider but which they cannot put out of their minds.” …


In addition to Jackson, our action in 1966 in amending Rule 14 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure also evidences our repudiation of Delli Paoli’s basic premise. Rule 14 authorizes a severance where it appears that a defendant might be prejudiced by a joint trial. The Rule was amended in 1966 to provide expressly that “[i]n ruling on a motion by a defendant for severance the court may order the attorney for the government to deliver to the court for inspection in camera any statements or confessions made by the defendants which the government intends to introduce in evidence at the trial.” …


The Advisory Committee on Rules said in explanation of the amendment:

“A defendant may be prejudiced by the admission in evidence against a co-defendant of a statement or confession made by that co-defendant. This prejudice cannot be dispelled by cross-examination if the co-defendant does not take the stand. Limiting instructions to the jury may not in fact erase the prejudice. . . .

“The purpose of the amendment is to provide a procedure whereby the issue of possible prejudice can be resolved on the motion for severance. . . .” 


Those who have defended reliance on the limiting instruction in this area have cited several reasons in support. Judge Learned Hand, a particularly severe critic of the proposition that juries could be counted on to disregard inadmissible hearsay, wrote the opinion for the Second Circuit which affirmed Delli Paoli’s conviction. … In Judge Hand’s view the limiting instruction, although not really capable of preventing the jury from considering the prejudicial evidence, does as a matter of form provide a way around the exclusionary rules of evidence that is defensible because it “probably furthers, rather than impedes, the search for truth....” … Insofar as this implies the prosecution ought not to be denied the benefit of the confession to prove the confessor’s guilt, however, it overlooks alternative ways of achieving that benefit without at the same time infringing the nonconfessor’s right of confrontation. Where viable alternatives do exist, it is deceptive to rely on the pursuit of truth to defend a clearly harmful practice.


Another reason cited in defense of Delli Paoli is the justification for joint trials in general, the argument being that the benefits of joint proceedings should not have to be sacrificed by requiring separate trials in order to use the confession against the declarant. Joint trials do conserve state funds, diminish inconvenience to witnesses and public authorities, and avoid delays in bringing those accused of crime to trial. But the answer to this argument was cogently stated by Judge Lehman of the New York Court of Appeals, dissenting in People v. Fisher, 249 N. Y. 419, 432, 164 N. E. 336, 341:


“We still adhere to the rule that an accused is entitled to confrontation of the witnesses against him and the right to cross-examine them . . . . We destroy the age-old rule which in the past has been regarded as a fundamental principle of our jurisprudence [391 U.S. 123, 135]   by a legalistic formula, required of the judge, that the jury may not consider any admissions against any party who did not join in them. We secure greater speed, economy and convenience in the administration of the law at the price of fundamental principles of constitutional liberty. That price is too high.”


Finally, the reason advanced by the majority in Delli Paoli was to tie the result to maintenance of the jury system. “Unless we proceed on the basis that the jury will follow the court’s instructions where those instructions are clear and the circumstances are such that the jury can reasonably be expected to follow them, the jury system makes little sense.” … We agree that there are many circumstances in which this reliance is justified. Not every admission of inadmissible hearsay or other evidence can be considered to be reversible error unavoidable through limiting instructions; instances occur in almost every trial where inadmissible evidence creeps in, usually inadvertently. “A defendant is entitled to a fair trial but not a perfect one.” … It is not unreasonable to conclude that in many such cases the jury can and will follow the trial judge’s instructions to disregard such information. Nevertheless, as was recognized in Jackson v. Denno, supra, there are some contexts in which the risk that the jury will not, or cannot, follow instructions is so great, and the consequences of failure so vital to the defendant, that the practical and human limitations of the jury system cannot be ignored. … Such a context is presented here, where the powerfully incriminating extrajudicial statements of a codefendant, who stands accused side-by-side with the defendant, are deliberately spread before the jury in a joint trial. Not only are the incriminations devastating to the defendant but their credibility is inevitably suspect, a fact recognized when accomplices do take the stand and the jury is instructed to weigh their testimony carefully given the recognized motivation to shift blame onto others. The unreliability of such evidence is intolerably compounded when the alleged accomplice, as here, does not testify and cannot be tested by cross-examination. It was against such threats to a fair trial that the Confrontation Clause was directed. …


We, of course, acknowledge the impossibility of determining whether in fact the jury did or did not ignore Evans’ statement inculpating petitioner in determining petitioner’s guilt. But that was also true in the analogous situation in Jackson v. Denno, and was not regarded as militating against striking down the New York procedure there involved. It was enough that that procedure posed “substantial threats to a defendant’s constitutional rights to have an involuntary confession entirely disregarded and to have the coercion issue fairly and reliably determined. These hazards we cannot ignore.” … Here the introduction of Evans’ confession posed a substantial threat to petitioner’s right to confront the witnesses against him, and this is a hazard we cannot ignore. Despite the concededly clear instructions to the jury to disregard Evans’ inadmissible hearsay evidence inculpating petitioner, in the context of a joint trial we cannot accept limiting instructions as an adequate substitute for petitioner’s constitutional right of cross-examination. The effect is the same as if there had been no instruction at all. …





Mr. Justice Black concurs in the result for the reasons stated in the dissent in Delli Paoli v. United States….



Mr. Justice Marshall took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.



Mr. Justice Stewart, concurring. …



Mr. Justice White, dissenting.


Whether or not Evans’ confession was inadmissible against him, nothing in that confession which was relevant and material to Bruton’s case was admissible against Bruton. As to him it was inadmissible hearsay, a presumptively unreliable out-of-court statement of a nonparty who was not a witness subject to cross-examination. Admitting Evans’ confession against Bruton would require a new trial unless the error was harmless.


The trial judge in this case had no different view. He admitted Evans’ confession only against Evans, not against Bruton, and carefully instructed the jury to disregard it in determining Bruton’s guilt or innocence. Contrary to its ruling just a decade ago in Delli Paoli v. United States … the Court now holds this instruction insufficient and reverses Bruton’s conviction. It would apparently also reverse every other case where a court admits a codefendant’s confession implicating a defendant, regardless of cautionary instructions and regardless of the circumstances. I dissent from this excessively rigid rule. There is nothing in this record to suggest that the jury did not follow the trial judge’s instructions. There has been no new learning since Delli Paoli indicating that juries are less reliable than they were considered in that case to be. There is nothing in the prior decisions of this Court which supports this new constitutional rule.


The Court concedes that there are many instances in which reliance on limiting instructions is justified - “Not every admission of inadmissible hearsay or other evidence can be considered to be reversible error unavoidable through limiting instructions; instances occur in almost every trial where inadmissible evidence creeps in, usually inadvertently.” Ante, at 135. The Court asserts, however, that the hazards to the defendant of permitting the jury to hear a codefendant’s confession implicating him are so severe that we must assume the jury’s inability to heed a limiting instruction. This was the holding of the Court with respect to a confession of the defendant himself in Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368 (1964). There are good reasons, however, for distinguishing the codefendant’s confession from that of the defendant himself and for trusting in the jury’s ability to disregard the former when instructed to do so.


First, the defendant’s own confession is probably the most probative and damaging evidence that can be admitted against him. Though itself an out-of-court statement, it is admitted as reliable evidence because it is an admission of guilt by the defendant and constitutes direct evidence of the facts to which it relates. Even the testimony of an eyewitness may be less reliable than the defendant’s own confession. An observer may not correctly perceive, understand, or remember the acts of another, but the admissions of a defendant come from the actor himself, the most knowledgeable and unimpeachable source of information about his past conduct. Certainly, confessions have profound impact on the jury, so much so that we may justifiably doubt its ability to put them out of mind even if told to do so. This was the conclusion of the Court in Jackson, and I continue to believe that case to be sound law.


Second, it must be remembered that a coerced confession is not excluded because it is thought to be unreliable. Regardless of how true it may be, it is excluded because specific provisions of the Constitution demand it, whatever the consequences for the criminal trial. In Jackson itself it was stated that “[i]t is now axiomatic that a defendant in a criminal case is deprived of due process of law if his conviction is founded, in whole or in part, upon an involuntary confession, without regard for the truth or falsity of the confession....”


The defendant’s own confession may not be used against him if coerced, not because it is untrue but to protect other constitutional values. The jury may have great difficulty understanding such a rule and following an instruction to disregard the confession. In contrast, the codefendant’s admissions cannot enter into the determination of the defendant’s guilt or innocence because they are unreliable. This the jury can be told and can understand. Just as the Court believes that juries can reasonably be expected to disregard ordinary hearsay or other inadmissible evidence when instructed to do so, I believe juries will disregard the portions of a codefendant’s confession implicating the defendant when so instructed. … Because I have no doubt that serious-minded and responsible men are able to shut their minds to unreliable information when exercising their judgment, I reject the assumption of the majority that giving instructions to a jury to disregard a codefendant’s confession is an empty gesture.


The rule which the Court announces today will severely limit the circumstances in which defendants may be tried together for a crime which they are both charged with committing. Unquestionably, joint trials are more economical and minimize the burden on witnesses, prosecutors, and courts. They also avoid delays in bringing those accused of crime to trial. This much the Court concedes. It is also worth saying that separate trials are apt to have varying consequences for legally indistinguishable defendants. The unfairness of this is confirmed by the common prosecutorial experience of seeing codefendants who are tried separately strenuously jockeying for position with regard to who should be the first to be tried. …


… I persist in believing that the reversal of Delli Paoli unnecessarily burdens the already difficult task of conducting criminal trials, and therefore I dissent in this case.



Mr. Justice Harlan joins this opinion without abandoning his original disagreement with Jackson v. Denno, … expressed in his dissenting opinion in that case.