In State v. Henson, decided January 22, 2014, the S.C. Supreme Court reversed convictions for murder and other charges because of a violation of the Confrontation Clause. The trial court’s admission of the codefendant’s confession was a Bruton violation.
I have blogged about Bruton before.
Anyway, this case involved four defendants. Two took deals and testified for the state. The third gave a confession implicating the fourth defendant – Henson.
Prior to trial, Henson moved for a severance. The trial court denied the motion because it thought that the state’s redacted copy would satisfy the Bruton issue. What the state had done was to simply take Henson’s name out and put in “the guy,” “he,” and “him.”
I don’t think that fooled anyone and the Supreme Court didn’t think so either.
The jury likely would infer that Henson—a male, seated before them as a defendant, and the only defendant not named in the confession—was the fourth individual and the shooter referenced in Reid’s confession. The jury also could presume the solicitor would not both assert that Henson was the fourth conspirator and offer the confession into evidence if the solicitor believed the confession referred to anyone other than Henson.
A Confrontation Clause violation is subject to harmless error analysis. The Court could have easily declared this error harmless given the fact that two co-defendants testified Henson did it. In refusing to do so, the Court took the opportunity to point out something that I have been saying for years – snitches can’t be trusted. Of course, the Supreme Court said it in a nicer way than I did.
The only evidence other than Reid’s confession actually identifying Henson as a conspirator was the testimony of Ervin and Newman. However, Ervin and Newman both faced charges for their participation in the crimes and thus, had an incentive to downplay their involvement and shift blame onto others. Therefore, we conclude the error was not harmless.