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State v. Lyons

Decided: March 21, 1984.

THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
v.
MICHAEL LYONS, WILLIE LE GRAND AND MICKEY JAMES, DEFENDANTS



Wolin, J.s.c.

Wolin

In response to the State's application for a joint trial of all defendants with the admission of each defendant's statement, defendants object and, alternatively, seek exclusion of the statements or severed trials in accord with R. 3:15-2(a) and Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 88 S. Ct. 1620, 20 L. Ed. 2d 476 (1968). Neither of these suggested remedies is required nor necessary for a fair and impartial trial, and the application of the State for a joint trial is granted.

The issue before this Court involves the right to confrontation under the Sixth Amendment of the Federal Constitution and N.J.S.A. Const., Art. 1, ยง 10. More specifically, where each of three defendants, in out-of-court statements, has given an inculpatory statement that describes his own participation in the crime and implicates each of his co-defendants, is a particular defendant's constitutional right to cross-examine violated by the introduction of the co-defendants' confessions, where none of the defendants elects to testify during the joint trial?

Defendants are being tried for an armed robbery with a handgun that occurred at 2:30 A.M. on October 30, 1983 at the

St. George Exxon station, Rahway, New Jersey. Each of the defendants described the robbery or the events immediately preceding it. Each acknowledged his own presence at the scene, as well as the presence of his co-defendants. All admitted that they drove to the gas station together and that they participated in the criminal episode. While the statements dispute whose plan was effectuated and who owned the gun, they undeniably point to the unlawful gain of money as the object of the co-venture. In short, each statement is an unequivocal confession. I find this to be true despite the fact that one of the statements was oral, while the remaining two were in writing.

The application to sever relies on R. 3:15-2(a) and Bruton v. United States, supra. The State asserts that joinder is proper under Parker v. Randolph, 442 U.S. 62, 99 S. Ct. 2132, 60 L. Ed. 2d 713 (1979). No reported opinion of the courts of this state has either adopted or rejected the plurality opinion in Parker v. Randolph.*fn1

In Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 88 S. Ct. 1620, L. Ed. 2d 476 (1968), the United States Supreme Court held that the admission in a joint trial of incriminating extrajudicial statements made by a co-defendant and not subject to cross-examination impermissibly intrudes on the Sixth Amendment rights of the defendant.*fn2 The Court ruled that it was insufficient for the trial judge to have given a limiting instruction to the jury that evidence of a co-defendant's confession (which

implicated both the co-defendant and defendant-Bruton) should be considered in determining the guilt of the co-defendant only.*fn3

In Parker v. Randolph, 442 U.S. 62, 99 S. Ct. 2132, 60 L. Ed. 2d 713 (1979), the Supreme Court addressed the matter of interlocking confessions, wherein the defendant himself confesses and his confession "interlocks" with and supports the confessions of his co-defendants. Justice Rehnquist delivered a plurality opinion finding that the admission of the interlocking confessions of respondents -- none of whom testified at trial -- with proper limiting instructions did not violate their Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment Rights of Confrontation.*fn4 The plurality declared:

The right protected by Bruton, the constitutional right of cross-examination . . . has far less practical value to a defendant who has confessed to the crime than to one who has consistently maintained his innocence . . . . When as in Bruton, the confessing co-defendant 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, 391 U.S. [123] at 135, 88 S. Ct. 1620 [at 1627] 20 L. Ed. 2d 476) override the theoretically sound premise that a jury will follow the trial court's instruction. 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 trial court's instructions is not so "devastating" or "vital" to the confessing defendant to require departure from the general ...


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