WASHINGTON – When the Supreme Court decides the fate of a Baltimore man this session they will likely set a precedent that could have far reaching implications for the use of confessions made to police.
Kevin D. Gray, 20, was tried and convicted of manslaughter for the Nov. 19, 1993, beating death of Stacey Williams in Baltimore. Defense lawyers have argued that a confession by one of Gray’s co-defendants was improperly used to convict their client.
Prosecutors said that Gray was among six men who chased down and beat Williams to death. He was tried along with Anthony Bell, the only other man prosecuted for the killing.
Along with witnesses who identified Gray and Bell as having been involved, prosecutors presented Bell’s confession to the police.
Bell’s original statement also identified Gray as being involved in the beating. Because they were being tried together, Gray’s lawyers could not force Bell to testify and defend his statement under cross examination.
As a compromise, District Judge Andre Davis, who presided over the jury trial, edited the statement. In place of the other names Bell used, the judge inserted “deleted” or “deletion.”
For example, part of the confession reads “An argument broke out between (deletion) and Stacey in the 500 block of Louden Avenue. … Me, (deleted) and a few other guys ran after Stacey. We caught up to him on Wildwood Parkway. We beat Stacey up.”
Prosecutors argued that the judge’s action was sufficient to protect Gray’s rights while allowing them to use the confession against Bell.
But Gray’s attorneys argued that in the context of trial, the jury could not be realistically expected to obey the judge’s instruction to use the statement when weighing Bell’s case but not when considering Gray’s involvement.
While the Maryland Special Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial for Gray, the Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest state court, affirmed the conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in June.
Aside from deciding Gray’s case, the court’s decision is expected to give trial judges clearer guidance on the use of edited statements.
“It’s been an issue that’s been pending for some time and there’s a good deal of split among other jurisdictions,” said Arthur DeLano, Gray’s lead attorney. “That’s probably part of the reason why the court took the case.”
Gray’s bid for a new trial is based on the legal argument that his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers was violated when Bell’s statement was admitted.
The trial judge’s editing was an attempt to protect Gray’s Sixth Amendment rights while allowing the prosecutors to use as much evidence as possible.
In their attempt to avoid a Supreme Court showdown, prosecutors argued that the procedure the judge in Gray’s case used complied with rules the Supreme Court set down in a 1987 case.
In that case, the court said a revision of one defendant’s statement was sufficient to protect a co-defendant’s rights.
“This is a very, very significant case,” said David Reiser. He wrote a brief on the case for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
While there are not a lot of theoretical issues at stake, “it does have immense practical importance,” Reiser said.
Reiser said in his brief that the trial judge should not just have left spaces where names were, but edited the statement so that there was absolutely no reference to anyone else.
A properly edited statement would not have drawn attention to the fact anything was missing, Reiser said.
Reiser’s brief argues that since the jury knew there were other people implicated by Bell’s confession, it was only natural they assume that the other person on trial, Gray, was one of those people.
“It would have been very easy to have redacted it properly,” Reiser said.
Assistant Attorney General Gary Bair said the prosecution’s briefs will be filed by Sept. 30. He declined to discuss the case until then.
The case will be heard sometime between Nov. 5 and the court’s summer recess.