The Supreme Court on Friday upheld the conviction of an American who participated in a plot to assassinate a real estate agent in the Philippines in 2012, rejecting his claim that his constitutional rights were violated in allowing testimony about a confession by an accomplice .
The actor, Adam Samia, was sentenced to life in prison plus 10 years after his conviction, along with two co-defendants, in a 2018 trial involving a murder-for-hire scheme. During the trial, the judge allowed the jury to hear the post-arrest confession of one of the other defendants who said he had been driving a van when Mr. Samia shot the woman in it.
The judge allowed a federal agent to describe that confession on the witness stand on the condition that Mr. Samia phrases such as “another person” were replaced. The judge also instructed the jury to hold the confession account as admissible evidence only against the defendant who made it.
After all three defendants were convicted, Mr. Samia appealed. His attorneys argued that the context made it clear to the jury that the other « person » was him, and allowing jurors to hear that statement violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser, since the co-defendant did not testified and there was no occasion to question him.
Write for the majorityJustice Clarence Thomas said the trial judge’s solution was a reasonable compromise for situations where there is a joint trial for a number of defendants and the confession of one indirectly implicates another defendant.
« The confrontation clause ensures that defendants have the opportunity to confront witnesses against them, but it does not provide an independent guarantee against the risk of potential bias that may arise deductively in a joint trial, » Judge Thomas wrote.
The vote was 6 to 3, with Republican appointees on the court in the majority and Democrats in dissent.
The case centered on a horrendous conspiracy in which prosecutors alleged that a transnational crime lord, Paul LeRoux, set Mr. Samia, then working for him as a soldier of fortune, and two other men to kill Catherine Lee, a real estate agent that Mr. LeRoux believed he had robbed him. She was shot twice in the head and her body was thrown on a trash heap.
The Drug Enforcement Administration later arrested them, and in 2018 federal prosecutors in New York charged Mr. Samia and two others, Joseph Hunter and Carl Stillwell. They also presented at trial the confession Mr. Stillwell, who did not testify, had made to federal agents following his arrest.
The officer testified that Mr. Stillwell had « described a moment when the other person he was with pulled the trigger on that woman in a van that he and Mr. Stillwell were driving. » But there was little doubt who « the other person » was. In opening statements, prosecutors had alleged that Mr. Stillwell was driving the van while Mr. Samia, in the passenger seat, spun around and shot Ms. Lee.
In a 10-page dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, argued that the majority had eviscerated a precedent from 1968 which alleged that a defendant’s rights were violated in similar circumstances, except that the description of a co-defendant’s confession referred to the defendant by name.
Under Friday’s ruling, Judge Kagan wrote, prosecutors can circumvent the 1968 precedent protections in joint trials by swapping a defendant’s name in an account of another defendant’s confession.
« But contrary to today’s decision, the serious Sixth Amendment problem remains, » he wrote. “Now, the defendants in the joint trials will not have a chance to confront some of the more damaging witnesses against them. And a constitutional right that once guaranteed that opportunity will no longer do. It will become, in joint processes, a shell of itself. »