Johnson v. Superintendent Fayette SCI, No. 18-2423 (3d Cir. 2020)Annotate this Case
Johnson and Wright were charged with murder. Before trial, Wright confessed to his involvement in the crime and identified Johnson as the shooter. The prosecution introduced Wright’s confession at trial, substituting Johnson’s name with “the other guy” in an attempt to avoid a Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause violation. Johnson’s identity as the “other guy” was explicitly revealed at the trial's beginning and end. The court instructed the jury to ignore Wright’s confession when considering Johnson’s culpability, but a question from the jury indicated that they were having great difficulty doing so. Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder. The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that there was no violation of the Supreme Court’s “Bruton” holding; the substitution of “other guy,” plus the jury instructions were adequate to protect Johnson’s rights under Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent.
A federal district court concluded that a Bruton violation had occurred but was harmless. The Third Circuit reversed. In these circumstances. courts cannot rely on a juror’s ability to put such inculpatory statements out of their minds; the statement’s admission violates the non-confessing co-defendant’s rights under the Confrontation Clause and requires a new trial if he has been prejudiced by such damaging evidence. The court noted that the jury, faced with a lack of overwhelming inculpatory evidence against Johnson, and significant credibility issues with the prosecution’s key witnesses, struggled for six days to reach a verdict.