What Happens When Defendants’ Constitutional Rights Interfere with One Another?

Often the most difficult kinds of legal cases to resolve are those in which the constitutional rights of multiple criminal defendants interfere with, or contradict one another. This unique situation usually only occurs when there are multiple defendants accused of participating in the same crime, and they are set to be tried together, before the same jury.

Two Defendants Tried Together

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court was confronted with a unique question. Two defendants were being tried together for participating in the same crime. Of course, they both held a Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and refuse to testify in court, which they exercised.

However a hearsay statement made by Defendant 1 was admitted into evidence. That statement incriminated Defendant 2, essentially telling a jury that Defendant 2 was guilty Defendant 1 argued that the statement should be excluded because it was made by Defendant 2, who was not testifying, and Defendant 1 has a constitutional right to confront those who accuse him. So, Defendant 1 could not exercise his Sixth Amendment right to question or confront a witness, because Defendant 1 was exercising his Fifth Amendment right and legally could not be a witness if he did not want to.

Maryland Case Deals With Similar Issue

That Supreme Court case was recently applied here in Maryland. In that case, a jailhouse conversation with the voice of Defendant 1 was played to a jury. The conversation contained incriminating information about Defendant 2, which a jury could reasonably believe implicated the Defendant of the crimes.

The trial court agreed that the tapes should not have been played for the jury, given that Defendant 1 was not testifying and Defendant 2 could thus not avail himself of his Sixth Amendment rights.

To remedy the situation, the judge ordered the jury, when considering the recordings, to ignore the parts of the recording that referenced Defendant 2, as if they did not exist.

Defendant 2 argued that the judge’s orders were insufficient, and that the impact of Defendant 2’s recorded statements was too great to be remedied by the judge’s instruction to the jury to ignore them. Defendant 2 asked for a mistrial.

Limiting Instructions Insufficient

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has previously held that limiting instructions such as the one provided to the jury in this case are insufficient because there are some instructions that even the best jury can not be expected to follow. Put another way, an instruction from a judge cannot “un-ring the bell” once prejudicial information has been put before the jury. The Supreme Court has stated that it would not allow a judge’s limiting instruction to substitute for a Defendant’s Sixth Amendment confrontation right.

Thus, the denial of Defendant 1’s motion for a mistrial, made during the trial, was held to be incorrect. The Appellate Court held that a mistrial should have been granted and the parties tried separately to avoid this unique constitutional issue.

Make sure your attorney understands your constitutional rights in even the most unique situations. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your case if you are charged with a crime or arrested in Maryland.