Massachusetts Continues to Narrowly Apply Bruton

January 31, 2015  –  by Liam Scully

In Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968), the United States Supreme Court held that a defendant’s confrontation clause rights are violated when a non-testifying codefendant’s confession naming the defendant as a participant in the crime is introduced at their joint trial, even if the jury is instructed to consider the confession only against the defendant. However, as a practical matter the courts of Masssachusetts continue to narrowly apply Bruton to the disadvantage of many defendants. The Appeals Court continued that trend when it decided Commonwealth v. Mitchell (Appeals Court No. 2012-P-0719) (January 28, 2016).

In affirming the second-degree murder convictions of Mitchell and two codefendants (Pabo and Ortiz), the Appeals Court rejected the defendants’ contention that a purported “Bruton” error had rendered their trial unfair. The case arose from the stabbing death of the victim during an altercation between two groups of people. Four alleged perpetrators were tried together, the three defendants here and a man named Goode who was also convicted of second-degree murder. Goode’s appeal was severed from that of the defendants.

Prior to trial, the defendants moved unsuccessfully “to sever each of their respective cases for trial; the requests were based upon what the defendants perceived to be a Bruton issue stemming from the Commonwealth’s expected use, at the joint trial, of a statement that Goode had made to the police.” Bruton “held that the admission, at a joint trial, of a non-testifying codefendant’s earlier statement, naming and directly incriminating another defendant, violates a defendant’s right to confront his accusers under the Sixth Amendment.” “ The judge denied the severance requests and ordered that Goode’s police statement be redacted to exclude any reference to any codefendant by name.” “[T]he judge instructed the jury that Goode’s statement must be considered solely as evidence in the case against him, and not against his codefendants.”

In its decision, the Appeals Court opined that “there was no Bruton violation because Goode’s redacted statement did not name expressly, implicate, or obviously refer to the codefendants so as to be ‘facially’ incriminating. Gray v. Maryland, 523 U.S. [185,] 196- 197 [1998]. Nor were any of the three defendants necessarily inculpated by inference from the Goode statement itself, particularly given the admittedly large number of individuals present” during the altercation that led to the killing. However, these types of redacted statements tend to leave the jury wondering what’s been left out and unfortunately can also lead to speculation during deliberation about facts not in evidence. Often times its what is not said expressly that can cost a defendant a fair trial.

Also in this decision, the Appeals Court rejected Mitchell’s contention that because he was sixteen years old when the crime was committed, he should “have been afforded individualized sentencing, in light of Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), and Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 466 Mass. 655 (2013).” The Court opined that, contrary to Mitchell’s argument, the statutory scheme under which he received his sentence (life in prison with a possibility of parole after fifteen years) was not unconstitutional by virtue of the fact that it “does not differentiate juvenile homicide offenders from adult homicide offenders.” The Court cited Commonwealth v. Okoro, 471 Mass. 51 (2015), where the SJC “squarely held that the sentence of life imprisonment mandated by the Legislature under G.L. c.265, §2, and G.L. c.119, §72B, for a juvenile offender convicted of the crime of murder in the second degree does not violate either the Eighth Amendment … or art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.”

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