Funny the Things You Learn When You RTFM

 Posted on October 16, 2008 in Uncategorized

Over at Women in Crime Ink, Katherine Scardino (one of Houston's leading criminal-defense lawyers) writes about the reversal of Robert Fratta's death-penalty conviction by Judge Melinda Harmon of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. (Via Grits for Breakfast.)

Guidry, Prystash, and Fratta were all charged with the murder of Fratta's wife. It was alleged that Guidry was the triggerman, Prystash the go-between and getaway driver, and Fratta the money-man in the plot to murder Farah Fratta.

Guidry and Prystash confessed to the police; his confession resulted from police misconduct (Detectives George Ronald "Ronnie" Roberts and Hoffman lied to Guidry and told him that Guidry's lawyer had given Guidry permission to answer their questions). Prystash confessed to the police; his confession may have resulted from police misconduct. Fratta did not confess. At Fratta's trial Guidry's and Prystash's confessions (redacted to remove references to Fratta) were admitted into evidence.

Katherine sees this as a Miranda / police misconduct case, asking Women in Crime Ink's readers, "Do you think Fratta should get a new trial because of the behavior of the officer with a co-defendant?"

That question so startled me - a defendant ordinarily has no standing to challenge violations of other people's rights - that I had to go and actually read both the trial court opinion and the Court of Appeals opinion. While Judge Harmon mentioned the police misconduct, that wasn't the basis of her opinion. Grits's post notwithstanding, this is not an exclusionary-rule case.

Instead, this is a straightforward pre-Crawford Confrontation-Clause problem: Do the statements bear adequate indicia of reliability?

Judge Harmon ruled that they did not. The fact that the Fifth Circuit had ruled that Guidry's confession was secured through deceit was not key to Judge Harmon's ruling:

While [The State] correctly notes that Fratta had no standing to challenge the violation of his co-defendant's rights under the Fifth Amendment, [The State] provides no basis upon which the trial court could have been assured that the confessions bore sufficient indicia of reliability.....

[E]ven if this Court did not consider the influence of [the Fifth Circuit's ruling in] Guidry, nothing in the record proves that, as the facts existed before the trial court and have subsequently been developed, Prystash's statements could be guaranteed as trustworthy.

The State agreed on appeal that admission of the two confessions violated the Confrontation Clause, but argued that the error was harmless. The Fifth Circuit, without mentioning police misconduct, affirmed Judge Harmon's ruling.

Commenters to Katherine's and Scott's post blame the cop's misconduct for the reversal. The truth is that Guidry's confession wouldn't have been admissible against Fratta, even before Crawford, if the cops followed the rules, because the State couldn't show any circumstances guaranteeing its trustworthiness. Supposing the cops had followed the rules and Guidry had said the same things, the presumption that a hearsay statement is not worthy of reliance would still have required the exclusion of the statement.

After Crawford, which redefined the protection of the Confrontation Clause, the Fratta decision is a mere curiosity. If Mr. Fratta were tried today Mr. Guidry's confession would be inadmissible because a) it was testimonial; and b) Mr. Fratta hadn't had the opportunity to cross-examine Mr. Guidry on the statement. It's not even close. So why am I bothering to write about it?

Every layperson with a TV set or an internet connection already thinks he's an expert on the subject. People who wouldn't dream of second-guessing their surgeons, much less removing their own appendixes, think they know enough about the court system to try their own cases. There is enough public misinformation about how the criminal justice system works without blawgers contributing to it.

With all respect to my fellow legal bloggers, the truth is important enough that it's worth actually reading the cases about which you comment, and getting it right.

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