Monday, August 27, 2018

Court Rejects 2013 Precedent Granting Habeas Relief, Holds Confrontation Clause Not Violated

In Mitchell v. Superintendent Dallas SCI, No. 17-3118 (Aug. 23, 2018), the Court upholds the denial of relief to a habeas petitioner whose codefendant had prevailed on the very same claim in 2013. At issue was the admission of a third defendant’s out-of-court statements admitting his involvement in a robbery and murder for which all three were on trial, and claiming that the homicide was “the other two’s idea.” The statements were recounted by inmates to whom the third defendant reportedly spoke about the case in jail.

In Eley v. Ericson, 712 F.3d 837 (3d Cir. 2013), the Court determined that admitting the third defendant’s statements had violated codefendant Karim Eley’s Sixth Amendment right of confrontation under Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968), which barred the admission at a joint trial of one defendant’s out-of-court statement inculpating both himself and another defendant. Several decades after Bruton, but still years before Eley, the Supreme Court held in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), that the Confrontation Clause limits the admission only of “testimonial” hearsay, such as statements made to law enforcement officers seeking information about past events. The Commonwealth did not contend in Eley’s case that the third defendant’s statements to other inmates were not “testimonial” within the meaning of Crawford. Nor did the Court itself contemplate any such problem with Eley’s claim. It ordered that Eley be retried within 120 days or else released from custody.

But this precedent is of no help to codefendant Edward Mitchell, the Court now concludes: “[W]e are obliged to consider Crawford because it is a relevant precedent and the respondent squarely has raised the case even though we did not discuss Crawford when we granted relief to Eley.” The opinion notes that United States v. Berrios, 676 F.3d 118 (3d Cir. 2012), held Crawford to establish that the Confrontation Clause did not prohibit the introduction of surreptitiously recorded communications between two codefendants in a jail yard recalling their own and an additional defendant’s roles in the offense. The same was true in Mitchell's and Eley's case with respect to the third defendant's statements to other inmates. Accordingly, Mitchell could not show he “is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States,” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), and was not entitled to habeas relief.

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