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Court Curbs Use in Trials of Accomplices’ Confessions

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, strengthening the constitutional right to confront an accuser, ruled Tuesday that an accomplice’s confession implicating a fellow defendant is “inherently unreliable"--and ordinarily may not be used as evidence against that defendant.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices set aside the double-murder conviction of an Illinois woman that had been based in part on the pretrial confession of her boyfriend, who was tried with her but did not take the witness stand and could not be cross-examined.

Opinion by Brennan

“The right to confront and to cross-examine witnesses is primarily a functional right that promotes reliability in criminal trials,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote for the majority.

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In this case, Brennan said, “there is no occasion to depart from the time-honored teaching that a co-defendant’s confession incriminating the accused is inherently unreliable and that convictions supported by such evidence violate the constitutional right of confrontation.”

Dissenters, in an opinion by Justice Harry A. Blackmun, said that the court was disregarding the “significant realities” that characterize criminal cases and that the statement at issue was reliable and should be held admissible.

The decision represented a strong reaffirmation of previous rulings broadening the Sixth Amendment right of defendants to question their accusers.

Process of Confrontation

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In most trials, the process of confrontation is routine: The defendant’s counsel cross-examines the prosecution’s witnesses. But the procedure becomes legally troublesome when there are multiple defendants and one has implicated another in a confession but refuses to testify at trial.

In the case before the court, Millie R. Lee and Edwin R. Thomas were accused of the stabbing and beating murders of her aunt and a friend in East St. Louis, Ill., in 1982.

Each defendant made incriminating statements to police. In some respects, the confessions were consistent in their descriptions of the facts and circumstances. But Lee contended that she had acted in self-defense or in sudden passion in the killing of her aunt and had not participated in the other murder. In contrast, Thomas strongly implicated Lee, saying that the two had planned to kill her aunt.

Pair Tried Jointly

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Lee and Thomas were tried jointly and found guilty. Lee challenged her conviction because of the admission of Thomas’ confession as evidence against her--but a state appeals court rejected her claim.

Brennan’s majority opinion (Lee vs. Illinois, 84-6807) overturning the state court ruling was joined by Justices Byron R. White, Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O’Connor.

The court concluded that, where there was no opportunity for cross-examination, such statements must be presumed unreliable--and may be admitted only when the prosecution meets a heavy burden of showing that they are trustworthy.

Brennan said it had not been shown that Thomas had not intended to spread the blame or overstate Lee’s involvement in retaliation against her. “Once partners in a crime recognize that the ‘jig is up,’ they tend to lose any identity of interest and immediately become antagonists, rather than accomplices,” he said.

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Returned to State Court

However, the court stopped short of ordering a retrial for Lee. The justices instead sent the case back to state court for further review to see whether there was other evidence sufficient to uphold Lee’s conviction--a finding that would render the admission of Thomas’ statement a “harmless error.”

Blackmun’s dissent, joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justices Lewis F. Powell Jr. and William H. Rehnquist, said that Thomas’ statement was sufficiently reliable to be used against Lee, primarily because it was “thoroughly and unambiguously” adverse to his own interests.


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