Monday, May 7, 2012

What Should the Jury Know?

I'd like to discuss a recent trial.  It was a home invasion case tried by talented attorneys for the prosecution and defense.  A home invasion is when armed men enter a person's home for the purpose of committing a crime.  Home invasion is the colloquial term.  The accurate crimes are robbery and burglary.

One of the defendants left his DNA at the scene and was caught fleeing with a loaded shotgun.  Another defendant was not arrested until months after the crime, based on the identification of two witnesses.  A third defendant awaits trial by a separate jury.  The reason for separate trials?  The third defendant confessed and implicated the other two.

The Supreme Court in Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968) has stated that where one defendant implicates another in a statement that will be used against him on the prosecution's case, the trials must be severed.  Each defendant must be tried separate.  The confession can only be used at the trial against the person that confessed.  The jury of the non-confessing defendant will never hear of the co-defendant's confession.

The reason is because the Sixth Amendment confers a right to confront the witnesses against you.  Generally, a police officer testifies to a defendant's confession.  The defense attorney is allowed to cross-examine the officer.  However, the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent does not allow a defense attorney to cross-examine the defendant that gave the statement implicating his client.  Thus, the Supreme Court ruled that confessions are only admissible against the person that gives them, not other people implicated.  

In the home invasion case, the jury convicted the defendant who left his DNA at the scene and acquitted the second defendant who was arrested based on identifications.

This verdict magnifies the problem with the Bruton decision for a juror.  Jurors usually want all the facts before they make a decision.  They are attempting to make a decision based on all the facts.  Most times though, the facts they have before them are limited by rules, cases, and the trial judge's interpretation of those rules and cases.

Allowing the statement of a co-defendant would violate one of the fundamental rights of our Constitution.  Therefore, it's inadmissible.  In many cases, courts suppress confessions or incriminating evidence obtained in violation of a person's rights.  The jury never hears about it.  It's a punishment to the police for the violation and hopefully a deterrent for future conduct.

But the jury comes to mind again.  This is further evidence that is available, but a jury is not allowed to hear during the trial.  What about items that undercut the prosecution?   A jury may never hear those either.

For example, a defendant's statements to police officers do not come into trial unless the prosecution wants them to.  A defendant's statements to prosecution witnesses are hearsay, but is admissible because it is considered an admission by an opponent.  However, it is not admissible if the defendant tries to offer it in evidence because then it is being offered by the same party, not an opponent.  This includes protestations of innocence, alibi claims, self-defense, and any other defense the defendant gives the police.  The only way to get these claims in front of the jury is to testify and allow the prosecution to cross-examine.  

Rules of evidence and procedure are designed to ensure a trial does not become a drawn out process with all sorts of irrelevant material.  The spirit behind them is to keep a trial focused.  But we place a tremendous responsibility on the jury to make factual decisions at trial without all the pertinent facts.

Should there be some way to get all relevant materials to the jury?  Would instructions from the court that instruct the jury how to consider evidence be enough?  How does this affect the defendant's rights?

1 comment:

  1. This has always, always, always bothered me. I have always felt like juries are given such a limited set of facts to work with because of all the elaborate admissibility rules. I hate it. I think they should have everything and make their own judgments. The court is going to trust them with a person's freedom but not with all the evidence? That is silly. Perhaps there should just be jury instructions to frame certain pieces of evidence rather than excluding it altogether. If I were ever on a jury I would never trust either side because I'd know that what we were being given at the trial was only 10 percent of what was actually available. I don't know how I could in good conscience use only 10 percent of the available information to decide someone's fate.