Friday, September 04, 2015

Court examines White v. Woodall, reaffirms grant of habeas relief due to Bruton violation.


Washington v. Secretary, No. 12-2883, 2015 WL 5103330 (3d Cir. Sept. 1, 2015),

In an opinion by Judge Fisher, the panel reaffirms its earlier decision granting habeas relief because of a Bruton violation.  At Washington's trial, the prosecution introduced a statement by his codefendant that redacted Washington's name and replaced it with generic terms.  One codefendant, Taylor, testified that Washington was the driver, who stayed in the car while two other accomplices entered, shot and killed two store employees, and stole cash from a safe.  Taylor claimed Washington entered the store following the shootings and helped remove the cash.  Taylor testified at trial and was impeached on cross-examination.  Then a detective read a redacted version of the confession of a non-testifying codefendant, Waddy, in which Washington's and a fourth defendant's names were replaced with phrases like "they guy who went into the store" and "the driver."
 
The district court and the 3d Circuit granted habeas relief, relying on the combined holdings of Bruton, Richardson v. Marsh, and Gray v. Maryland for the proposition that no reasonable reading of those cases can tolerate a redaction that would be "transparent to the jurors."  Here, the redactions were transparent because Taylor had explicitly identified Washington as the driver.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated, and remanded for further consideration in light of White v. Woodall(which held that a state court decision merely declining to "extend" a SCTOUS precedent cannot be an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law under AEDPA).

 Judge Fisher acknowledges how difficult the AEDPA "unreasonable application" test is to meet, and stresses that "applying a general standard to a sepcific case can demand a substantial element of judgment," requiring deference by habeas courts.  In his reading, the distinction between Richardson v. Marsh, which upheld the use of a redacted confession, and Gray v. Maryland, which disapproved it, was that in Richardson the redactions removed all mention of the existence of the nonconfessing defendant.
 
“Taken together, the current state of the law is that there is a Confrontation Clause violation when a non-testifying codefendant’s confession is introduced that names another codefendant, Bruton, 391 U.S. at 126, or that refers directly to the existence of the codefendant in a manner that is directly accusatory, Gray, 523 U.S. at 193-94. That is because such statements present a ‘substantial risk that the jury, despite instructions to the contrary, [will] look[] to the incriminating extrajudicial statements in determining [the defendant’s] guilt.’ Bruton, 391 U.S. at 126. But there is no violation if the confession is properly redacted to omit any reference at all to the codefendant, making it more likely that the jury will be able to follow the court’s instruction to disregard this evidence in rendering its verdict. Richardson, 481 U.S. at 208, 211. It is against this background that we assess whether the Pennsylvania Superior Court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law.” 
In Fisher's view, this is not a “close call” case that is subject to “fairminded disagreement.”  The Superior Court applied a blanket rule providing that a redaction was permissible as long as the jury had to apply an additional piece of information outside the confession to link it to the nonconfessing defendant.  This rule is "not a reasonable view of the law."
 
Fisher goes on to explain why, in contrast to Woodall, the state court ruling was not a mere refusal to extend the Bruton rule to a new context.
 
Thanks to Claudia Van Wyk, for providing this summary.
 

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