Bruton v. United States

391 U.S. 123 (1968)

Facts and Procedural History

A joint trial of defendant and his codefendant Evans resulted in conviction of both by a jury of armed postal robbery.  While in custody, Evans orally confessed that he and defendant committed the robbery. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals set aside Evans’ conviction on the ground that his oral confessions should not have been received in evidence against him, but upheld defendant’s conviction because the trial judge had instructed the jury that while Evans’ confession was competent evidence against Evans, it was inadmissible hearsay against defendant and therefore must be disregarded in determining defendant’s guilt or innocence.


Should the conviction of a defendant at a joint trial be set aside even though the jury was instructed that a codefendant’s confession inculpating the defendant had to be disregarded in determining his guilt or innocence?

Holding / Rule

(Brennan) Yes.  Reversed.


The Court overruled its earlier decision in Delli Paoli v. United States, which held that it is “reasonably possible” for a jury to follow sufficiently clear instructions to disregard the confessor’s extrajudicial statement that his codefendant participated with him in committing the crime.  Evans’ confessions were properly before the jury as against him and added substantial weight to the government’s case against defendant.  And Evans did not take the stand, leaving defendant without an opportunity to cross-examine him and therefore violating his constitutional right of confrontation.  Even with an instruction, the confessing defendant’s “nonadmissible declaration cannot be wiped from the brains of the jurors” when they determine the non-confessing defendant’s guilt or innocence.  While limiting instructions are sometimes adequate to cure the admission of inadmissible evidence, there are some contexts, like the one here, in which “the risk that the jury will not, or cannot, follow instructions is so great, and the consequences of failure so vital to the defendant, that the practical and human limitations of the jury system cannot be ignored.”

White dissented, arguing that there is nothing to suggest that the jury did not follow the trial court’s limiting instruction or that juries are less reliable than Delli Paoli considered them to be.  As with other hearsay, the jury can be trusted to understand and follow an instruction to disregard as unreliable the parts of a codefendant’s confession implicating the defendant—hearsay that is especially unreliable because of the codefendant’s strong motivation to shift blame.

Comments are closed.