Supreme Court grapples with use of confession in joint trial

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The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (IL file photo)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with whether a man serving a life sentence for his role on an international “kill team” should get a new trial.

The justices heard 90 minutes of lively arguments about a situation that sometimes arises in criminal trials with more than one defendant, when one person’s confession might also implicate someone else on trial.

Adam Samia, who was convicted of a killing a real estate broker in the Philippines, was tried with two other men who carried out the attack on the orders of Paul LeRoux, a South African who led an international crime organization and cooperated with federal authorities after his arrest in 2012.

LeRoux ordered the killing of the broker, Catherine Lee, because he believed Lee had stolen money from him.

One of the men confessed to his role and Samia’s lawyer, Kannon Shanmugam, said the confession unfairly implicated Samia as the trigger man, in violation of his constitutional rights. The co-defendant did not testify in his own defense so there was no opportunity for Samia’s trial lawyers to question the co-defendant.

The Supreme Court has previously imposed limits on the use of a confession in those circumstances, including that the defendant’s name has to be removed and can’t simply be replaced with the notation “redacted.” In Samia’s trial, he was described in the confession as “someone” and “the other person.”

Not good enough, Shanmugam said. “It is likely, indeed inevitable, that the confession here implicated the petitioner,” he said.

Conservative justices appeared generally skeptical of Shanmugam’s argument, but they did not seem to entirely embrace the points made by Justice Department lawyer Caroline Flynn, who urged the court to uphold the conviction.

Justice Clarence Thomas said it wasn’t clear that the portions of the confession that jurors heard pointed unmistakably to Samia. “How do you get from ‘someone’ to the petitioner in the testimony?” Thomas asked.

The liberal justices seemed more inclined toward Samia’s arguments. Justice Elena Kagan pressed Flynn about how much prosecutors have to do to alter a confession so that it can be used.

Flynn said removing a co-defendant’s name and replacing it with “the woman” could be sufficient.

Kagan was incredulous. “You can’t take the law seriously when it says, ‘redacted and I went out and robbed Bill’ is inadmissible, but ‘the woman and I went out and robbed Bill’ can be brought in,” she said.

Pennsylvania led 32 states in urging the court to uphold the use of the confession, noting that thousands of trials in the past 10 years have involved multiple defendants and confessions.

A ruling for Samia would lead to retrials and cause prosecutors to try defendants separately. “The casualties will, in some cases, be other defendants, and in all cases the victims and witnesses who must run the gamut through trial and retrial,” the states wrote in their Supreme Court filing.

The states’ brief attracted Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s attention. “We have an amicus brief from a lot of states, a real cross-section of states, saying this would be a huge problem,” Kavanaugh said.

But Shanmugam said that at least three of those states apply the sort of test he was calling for, looking at the confession in a broader context to decide if it would be unfair to the defendant.

Samia has denied any involvement in the killing, and his lawyers say no physical evidence links him to the crime.

The Justice Department said enough other evidence ties Samia to the crime that the court should leave his conviction in place, even if it finds the confession should not have been used.

A decision in Samia v. U.S., 22-196, is expected by late June.

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