Richardson v. Marsh

481 U. S. 200

April 21, 1987

Clarissa Marsh was an accomplice in a horrific murder carried out by Benjamin Williams. The two of them were tried together. Williams made a confession, but the parts of it that referred to Marsh were redacted when it was presented to the jury. This was done to get around the Bruton rule described in Cruz. Despite the redactions, a witness was able to provide independent testimony that Marsh took part in the crime. Marsh claimed that even with the redactions, the confession could still help the jury draw an inference that she was an accomplice.

The Court ruled 6-3 that a properly redacted confession was not inadmissible under the Bruton rule, even if it allowed the jury to draw some potentially unfounded inferences. Scalia wrote for the majority, and argued that any prejudicial effect on the jury was minimal. He further contended that disallowing redacted confessions would virtually force the end of joint trials, at a great financial cost to the legal system – and at great cost to the legal system’s legitimacy too, due to the possibility of inconsistent verdicts.

Justice Stevens, joined by Brennan and Marshall, dissented. He thought the facts of this particular case showed that the Williams confession, when linked with later evidence, would be powerful and incriminating evidence against Marsh. He blew off concerns about the financial costs of separate trials, disputing both the claim that they would become too numerous, and the implicit value judgment that administrative convenience was more important than fairness to defendants.

The majority got it right, although I’m not sure how Scalia and Blackmun were able to make such inconsistent votes in Marsh and Cruz. The Bruton rule was already dubious, and there existed no need to expand it any further. While Stevens spoke of the obligation for justice to trump administrative costs, the Bruton rule does not exactly represent justice – especially here, where it would have resulted in a clearly guilty murder accomplice going free.

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