481 U. S. 186
April 21, 1987
This is the tale of three men named Cruz. Norberto told the police that Eulogio had confessed to being an accomplice in a murder committed by his brother Benjamin. When confronted by the police about it, Benjamin confessed to the murder, and made a video statement implicating himself and Eulogio. Eulogio and Benjamin were tried together. Benjamin’s statement was admitted into evidence, as was Norbero’s testimony of Eulogio’s confession. The jury was instructed to ignore the part of Benjamin’s statement that implicated Eulogio. In response, Eulogio claimed that a case called Bruton disallowed the admission of a co-defendant’s confession at trial because it would inevitably be too prejudicial in the minds of the jurors.
In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the Bruton rule applied in this case, even though Eulogio’s own confession had been introduced in the form of Norberto’s testimony, ostensibly detracting from the danger posed to Eulogio by the Benjamin confession. Scalia wrote for the majority. He rejected the argument that the rule should not apply with both co-defendants make reinforcing confessions of mutual guilt. Scalia said that the prejudicial effect on the jury would still exist, because the presence of each confession bolstered the evidentiary reliability of the other one.
White, joined by Rehnquist, Powell, and O’Connor, dissented. Observing that the Bruton rule was merely prophylactic, White argued that the high cost of having separate trials, and the minimal prejudicial effect of Benjamin’s confession should weigh against extending the rule to this sort of situation. He also didn’t like a clearly guilty man getting off for some silly rule. This dissent is a great example of why I love White – he probably had the best sense of abstract justice of anyone on the Court, and he wasn’t afraid to favor common sense over a foolish consistency.
Heck, I’ll just let him speak: “Even where remorseless logic may seem to justify the extension of what otherwise might be a sound constitutional rule, common sense should prevail. Otherwise, especially in applying prophylactic rules, we may trivialize the principles of prior cases by applying them to situations that, in general, do not really pose the dangers that the rules were intended to obviate.”