Parker v. Randolph
442 U.S. 62 (1979)

Mr. Justice REHNQUIST announced the Court's judgment and delivered an opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and III, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, and an opinion (Part II), in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART and WHITE, JJ., joined.

In Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968), this Court reversed the robbery conviction of a defendant who had been implicated in the crime by his codefendant's extrajudicial confession. Because the codefendant had not taken the stand at the joint trial and thus could not be cross-examined, the Court held that admission of the codefendant's confession had deprived the defendant of his rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment. The issue before us in this case is whether Bruton requires reversal of a defendant's conviction when the defendant himself has confessed and his confession "interlocks" with and supports the confession of his codefendant. We hold that it does not.


Respondents were convicted of murder committed during the commission of a robbery and were sentenced to life imprisonment. The cast of characters playing out the scenes that led up to the fatal shooting could have come from the pen of Bret Harte. The story began in June 1970, when one William Douglas, a professional gambler from Las Vegas, Nev., arrived in Memphis, Tenn., calling himself Ray Blaylock and carrying a gun and a deck of cards. It ended on the evening of July 6, 1970, when Douglas was shot and killed in a Memphis apartment.

Testimony at the trial in the Tennessee state court showed that one Woppy Gaddy, who was promised a cut of Douglas' take, arranged a game of chance between Douglas and Robert Wood, a sometime Memphis gambler. Unwilling to trust the outcome of the contest entirely to luck or skill, Douglas marked the cards, and by game's end Robert Wood and his money had been separated. A second encounter between the two men yielded similar results, and Wood grew suspicious of Douglas' good fortune. In order to determine whether and how Douglas was cheating, Wood brought to the third game an acquaintance named Tommy Thomas, who had a reputation of being a "pretty good poker player." Unknown to Wood, however, Thomas' father and Douglas had been close friends; Thomas, predictably, threw in his lot with Douglas, purposefully lost some $1,000, and reported to Wood that the game was clean. Wood nonetheless left the third game convinced that he was being cheated and intent on recouping his now considerable losses. He explained the situation to his brother, Joe E. Wood, and the two men decided to relieve Douglas of his ill-gotten gains by staging a robbery of the upcoming fourth game.

At this juncture respondents Randolph, Pickens, and Hamilton entered the picture. To carry out the staged robbery, Joe Wood enlisted respondent Hamilton, who was one of his employees, and the latter in turn associated respondents Randolph and Pickens. Douglas and Robert Wood sat down to the fourth and final contest on the evening of July 6, 1970. Joe Wood and Thomas were present in the room as spectators. During the course of the game, Douglas armed himself with a .38-caliber pistol and an automatic shotgun; in response to this unexpected development Joe Wood pulled a derringer pistol on Douglas and Thomas, gave the gun to Robert Wood, and left to tell respondents to move in on the game. Before respondents arrived, however, Douglas reached for his pistol and was shot and killed by Robert Wood. Moments later, respondents and Joe Wood broke down the apartment door, Robert Wood gathered up the cash left on the table, and the gang of five fled into the night. Respondents were subsequently apprehended by the police and confessed to their involvement in the crime.

Respondents and the Wood brothers were jointly tried and convicted of murder during the commission of a robbery. Tenn. Code Ann. 39-2402 (1975). Each defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment. Robert Wood took the stand at trial, admitting that he had killed Douglas, but claiming that the shooting was in self-defense. Thomas described Douglas' method of cheating at cards and admitted his complicity in the fraud on Robert Wood. He also testified in substance that he was present in the room when Joe Wood produced the derringer and when Robert Wood shot and killed Douglas.

None of the respondents took the stand. Thomas could not positively identify any of them, and although Robert Wood named Hamilton as one of the three men involved in the staged robbery, he did not clearly identify Randolph and Pickens as the other two. The State's case against respondents thus rested primarily on their oral confessions, found by the trial court to have been freely and voluntarily given, which were admitted into evidence through the testimony of several officers of the Memphis Police Department.(1) A written confession signed by Pickens was also admitted into evidence over his objection that it had been obtained in violation of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). The trial court instructed the jury that each confession could be used only against the defendant who gave it and could not be considered as evidence of a codefendant's guilt.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed respondents' convictions, holding ... that admission of their confessions at the joint trial violated this Court's decision in Bruton. The Tennessee Supreme Court in turn reversed the Court of Criminal Appeals and reinstated the convictions. Because "each and every defendant either through words or actions demonstrated his knowledge that 'killing may be necessary,' " the court held that respondents' agreement to participate in the robbery rendered them liable under the Tennessee felony-murder statute for Douglas' death. The Tennessee Supreme Court also disagreed with the Court of Criminal Appeals that Bruton had been violated, emphasizing that the confession at issue in Bruton had inculpated a nonconfessing defendant in a joint trial at which neither defendant took the stand. Here, in contrast, the "interlocking inculpatory confessions" of respondents Randolph, Pickens, and Hamilton, "clearly demonstrated the involvement of each, as to crucial facts such as time, location, felonious activity, and awareness of the overall plan or scheme." Accordingly, the Tennessee Supreme Court concluded: "The fact that jointly tried codefendants have confessed precludes a violation of the Bruton rule where the confessions are similar in material aspects." Ibid.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee thereafter granted respondents' applications for writs of habeas corpus, ruling that their rights under Bruton had been violated and that introduction of respondent Pickens' uncounseled written confession had violated his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, supra. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that admission of the confessions violated the rule announced in Bruton and that the error was not harmless since the evidence against each respondent, even considering his confession, was "not so overwhelming as to compel the jury verdict of guilty...." 575 F.2d 1178, 1182....


Petitioner urges us ... to hold that the Bruton rule does not apply in the context of interlocking confessions. Alternatively, he contends that if introduction of interlocking confessions at a joint trial does violate Bruton, the error is all but automatically to be deemed harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. We agree with petitioner that admission at the joint trial of respondents' interlocking confessions did not infringe respondents' right of confrontation secured by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, but prefer to cast the issue in a slightly broader form than that posed by petitioner.

Bruton recognized that admission at a joint trial of the incriminating extrajudicial statements of a nontestifying codefendant can have "devastating" consequences to a nonconfessing defendant, adding "substantial, perhaps even critical, weight to the Government's case." 391 U.S., at 128. Such statements go to the jury untested by cross-examination and, indeed, perhaps unanswered altogether unless the defendant waives his Fifth Amendment privilege and takes the stand. The prejudicial impact of a codefendant's confession upon an incriminated defendant who has, insofar as the jury is concerned, maintained his innocence from the beginning is simply too great in such cases to be cured by a limiting instruction. The same cannot be said, however, when the defendant's own confession--"probably the most probative and damaging evidence that can be admitted against him," id., at 139 (White, J., dissenting)--is properly introduced at trial. The defendant is "the most knowledgeable and unimpeachable source of information about his past conduct," id., at 140 (White, J., dissenting), and one can scarcely imagine evidence more damaging to his defense than his own admission of guilt. Thus, the incriminating statements of a codefendant will seldom, if ever, be of the "devastating" character referred to in Bruton when the incriminated defendant has admitted his own guilt. The right protected by Bruton--the "constitutional right of cross-examination," id., at 137--has far less practical value to a defendant who has confessed to the crime than to one who has consistently maintained his innocence. Successfully impeaching a codefendant's confession on cross-examination would likely yield small advantage to the defendant whose own admission of guilt stands before the jury unchallenged. Nor does the natural "motivation to shift blame onto others," recognized by the Bruton Court to render the incriminating statements of codefendants "inevitably suspect," id., at 136, require application of the Bruton rule when the incriminated defendant has corroborated his codefendant's statements by heaping blame onto himself.

The right of confrontation conferred by the Sixth Amendment is a safeguard to ensure the fairness and accuracy of criminal trials, and its reach cannot be divorced from the system of trial by jury contemplated by the Constitution. A crucial assumption underlying that system is that juries will follow the instructions given them by the trial judge. Were this not so, it would be pointless for a trial court to instruct a jury, and even more pointless for an appellate court to reverse a criminal conviction because the jury was improperly instructed. The Confrontation Clause has never been held to bar the admission into evidence of every relevant extrajudicial statement made by a nontestifying declarant simply because it in some way incriminates the defendant. See, e.g., Mattox v. United States, 156 U.S. 237, 240-244 (1895). And an instruction directing the jury to consider a codefendant's extrajudicial statement only against its source has been found sufficient to avoid offending the confrontation right of the implicated defendant in numerous decisions of this Court.

When, as in Bruton, the confessing codefendant has chosen not to take the stand and the implicated defendant has made no extrajudicial admission of guilt, limiting instructions cannot be accepted as adequate to safeguard the defendant's rights under the Confrontation Clause. Under such circumstances, the "practical and human limitations of the jury system," Bruton v. United States, supra, at 135, override the theoretically sound premise that a jury will follow the trial court's instructions. But when the defendant's own confession is properly before the jury, we believe that the constitutional scales tip the other way. The possible prejudice resulting from the failure of the jury to follow the trial court's instructions is not so "devastating" or "vital" to the confessing defendant to require departure from the general rule allowing admission of evidence with limiting instructions. We therefore hold that admission of interlocking confessions with proper limiting instructions conforms to the requirements of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals as to respondents Hamilton and Randolph is reversed....

Mr. Justice POWELL took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.


Mr. Justice BLACKMUN, concurring in part....

For me, any error that existed in the admission of the confessions of the codefendants, in violation of Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968), was, on the facts of this case, clearly harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. I refrain from joining Part II of the principal opinion because, as I read it, it abandons the harmless-error analysis the Court previously has applied in similar circumstances and now adopts a per se rule to the effect that Bruton is inapplicable in an interlocking confession situation....

It is possible, of course, that the new approach will result in no more than a shift in analysis. Instead of focusing on whether the error was harmless, defendants and courts will be forced, instead, to inquire whether the confessions were sufficiently interlocking so as to permit a conclusion that Bruton does not apply. And I suppose that after making a determination that the confessions did not interlock to a sufficient degree, the court then would have to make a harmless-error determination anyway, thus adding another step to the process.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that the new approach mandates even an inquiry whether the confessions interlock. Respondents have argued that the confessions in this case, in fact, did not interlock. The principal opinion, however, simply assumes the interlock. It thus comes close to saying that so long as all the defendants have made some type of confession which is placed in evidence, Bruton is inapplicable without inquiry into whether the confessions actually interlock and the extent thereof. If it is willing to abandon the factual inquiry that accompanies a harmless-error determination, it should be ready, at least, to substitute an inquiry into whether there is genuine interlocking before it casts the application of Bruton, and the underlying Confrontation Clause right, completely aside....

Mr. Justice STEVENS, with whom Mr. Justice BRENNAN and Mr. Justice MARSHALL join, dissenting....

Evidence that a defendant has made an "extrajudicial admission of guilt" which "stands before the jury unchallenged," ante, is not an acceptable reason for depriving him of his constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him. In arguing to the contrary, and in striving "to cast the issue" presented "in a ... broader form" than any of the parties felt necessary to dispose of the case, ante, the plurality necessarily relies on two assumptions. Both are erroneous. First, it assumes that the jury's ability to disregard a codefendant's inadmissible and highly prejudicial confession is invariably increased by the existence of a corroborating statement by the defendant. Second, it assumes that all unchallenged confessions by a defendant are equally reliable. Aside from two quotations from the dissent in Bruton, however, the plurality supports these assumptions with nothing more than the force of its own assertions. But the infinite variability of inculpatory statements (whether made by defendants or codefendants), and of their likely effect on juries, makes those assertions untenable. A hypothetical example is instructive.

Suppose a prosecutor has 10 items of evidence tending to prove that defendant X and codefendant Y are guilty of assassinating a public figure. The first is the tape of a televised interview with Y describing in detail how he and X planned and executed the crime. Items two through nine involve circumstantial evidence of a past association between X and Y, a shared hostility for the victim, and an expressed wish for his early demise--evidence that in itself might very well be insufficient to convict X. Item 10 is the testimony of a drinking partner, a former cellmate, or a divorced spouse of X who vaguely recalls X saying that he had been with Y at the approximate time of the killing. Neither X nor Y takes the stand.

If Y's televised confession were placed before the jury while Y was immunized from cross-examination, it would undoubtedly have the "devastating" effect on X that the Bruton rule was designed to avoid. 391 U.S., at 128. As Mr. Justice Stewart's characteristically concise explanation of the underlying rationale in that case demonstrates, it would also plainly violate X's Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser. Nevertheless, under the plurality's first remarkable assumption, the prejudice to X--and the violation of his constitutional right--would be entirely cured by the subsequent use of evidence of his own ambiguous statement. In my judgment, such dubious corroboration would enhance, rather than reduce, the danger that the jury would rely on Y's televised confession when evaluating X's guilt. Even if I am wrong, however, there is no reason to conclude that the prosecutor's reliance on item 10 would obviate the harm flowing from the use of item 1.

The dubiousness of X's confession in this example--as in any case in which the defendant's inculpatory statement is ambiguous, incomplete, the result of coercive influences, or simply the product of the well-recognized and often untrustworthy "urge to confess"--illustrates the inaccuracy of the plurality's second crucial assumption. It is no doubt true that in some cases a defendant's confession will constitute such convincing evidence of his guilt that the violation of his constitutional rights is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. E.g., Brown v. United States, 411 U.S. 223; Schneble v. Florida, 405 U.S. 427. But in many cases, it is not so convincing. Moreover, such evidence is not inherently more incriminating or more reliable than other kinds of evidence such as fingerprints, photographs, or eyewitness testimony. Yet, if these types of corroboration are given the same absolute effect that the plurality would accord confessions, the Bruton rule would almost never apply....

In short, I see no logic to commend the proposed exception to the rule of Bruton save, perhaps, a purpose to limit the effect of that rule to the largely irrelevant set of facts in the case that announced it....

I respectfully dissent.

Which confrontation rule does the plurality apply? How does the plurality opinion distinguish Bruton?

Is there a divergence between theory and practice in the jury's ability to follow limiting instructions? If so, how should this be reconciled? Are juries more or less likely to follow instructions in this type of case than in the Bruton situation?

To what extent must confessions "interlock" to satisfy the plurality's test? What does "interlock" mean? In normal parlance, pieces interlock when they fit together to make a whole. Confessions that interlock in this sense would each tell an incomplete story with the missing pieces supplied by the other confession. Is this what Rehnquist has in mind? Are confessions that interlock in this fashion more reliable than confessions that merely overlap?

How should a trial court handle a case in which the co-defendants have given confessions that do not interlock but in fact contradict one another in important respects?

Is the harmless error approach advocated by Justice Blackmun and the dissenters a preferable ground of decision in Parker? Taking up the challenge posed by the dissenting opinion, was the corroborated evidence in this case so trustworthy that the co-defendants' confessions should have been fully admissible against all the defendants?

1. 3. Each of the confessions was subjected to a process of redaction in which references by the confessing defendant to other defendants were replaced with the words "blank" or "another person." As the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit observed below, the confessions were nevertheless "such as to leave no possible doubt in the jurors' minds concerning the 'person[s]' referred to." 575 F.2d, at 1180.


div1.gif (1531 bytes)
Home | Contents | Topical Index | Syllabi | Search | Contact Us | Professors' Pages
Cases | Problems | Rules | Statutes | Articles | Commentary