U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court will decide criminal cases involving co-defendant's statement, improper venue

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to decide two cases involving criminal defendants and their rights under the Sixth Amendment.

In Samia v. United States, the Supreme Court will consider whether murder defendant Adam Samia’s rights under the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause were violated by testimony about a co-defendant’s confession.

In Smith v. United States, the high court will consider whether hacking defendant Timothy J. Smith can be retried after a trial in the wrong venue. The Sixth Amendment provides that criminal defendants have the right to a speedy and public trial “by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” Article III also provides that trials should be in the state where the crime was committed.

SCOTUS blog and Law360 (here and here) have stories. The cert petitions are here and here.

Samia was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a real estate agent in the Philippines. The government alleges that he is a “hit man” who “committed an array of crimes worthy of a James Bond villain,” according to SCOTUSblog.

Samia and the co-defendant were tried for the murder with a third co-defendant; only Samia maintained his innocence. The second co-defendant’s confession identified Samia as the triggerman, but testimony regarding the confession replaced Samia’s name with references to the “other person.” A judge instructed jurors that the confession should only be considered regarding the co-defendant who made it.

Samia said there is no person other than himself who could be the “other person” referenced in testimony about the confession.

Samia’s cert petition said the government should accept the case “and put an end to the decades-old saga of uncertainty about the scope of the Bruton rule,” named after the 1968 Supreme Court case Bruton v. United States. That decision held that the Sixth Amendment prevents prosecutors from introducing an out-of-court confession of a co-defendant that incriminates another defendant in a joint trial.

The second case stems from the prosecution of Smith, a software engineer and fisherman in Mobile, Alabama. Smith was accused of hacking into the website of Pensacola, Florida-based company StrikeLines. The company identifies the locations of artificial fishing reefs and sells them to other people who fish. Smith was accused of stealing StrikeLines data and offering to remove discussions of StrikeLines coordinates from his social media posts in exchange for grouper fishing locations.

Smith was tried in Pensacola, Florida, over his objection. He said the venue was improper because he lived in the Southern District of Alabama and StrikeLines’ servers were in the Middle District of Florida.

Smith was acquitted on a federal hacking charge but was convicted for theft of trade secrets and extortion. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Atlanta vacated the trade secrets count because it was tried in the wrong venue. But retrial was permissible, the 11th Circuit said.

Smith maintains that he should have been acquitted for the improper venue, and he cannot be retried. The issue has led to a split among federal appeals courts.

“The courts of appeals are deeply and intractably divided over the proper remedy for a failure to prove venue,” the cert petition said.

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