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United States of America v. Oscar Garcia

December 17, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Edward J. Lodge United States District Judge



The Court has before it defendant Oscar Garcia's Motion for Relief from Misjoinder and Prejudicial Joinder (Dkt. 226). The Court has determined oral argument would not assist the decision-making process and will decide the motion without a hearing. For the reasons explained below, the Court will deem the motion moot, in part, and deny it without prejudice, in part.


1. Issues related to Juan Gonzalez and Alfredo Castro

Two issues raised in this motion are moot. First, Garcia argued that his case was misjoined with a count applicable to co-defendant Juan Gonzalez. Gonzalez has since pled guilty and will not be tried. Second, Garcia's argument that he cannot be fairly tried with co-defendant Alfredo Castro is moot because Castro has pled guilty as well. Of the eleven named defendants, only two -- Garcia and Juan Jimenez -- will be tried.

2. Bruton Issues

Garcia argues he will be unfairly prejudiced if he is jointly tried with co-defendant Jimenez.

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 14 provides that "[i]f the joinder of offenses or defendants . . . appears to prejudice a defendant," then "the court may . . . sever the defendants' trials, or provide any other relief that justice requires." Severance is appropriate under Rule 14 "only if there is a serious risk that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right of one of the defendants . . . ." Zafiro v. United States, 506 U.S. 534, 539 (1993). Garcia bears the burden of justifying severance, meaning he must show that a joint trial would create such a "clear," "manifest" or "undue prejudice" that one of his substantive rights would be violated to the point where he would be denied a fair trial. United States v. Vasquez-Velasco, 15 F.3d 833, 846 (9th Cir. 1994).

Garcia has not identified any specificsubstantive right that will be compromised by a joint trial. Instead, he points only to the possibility of a Bruton problem. See generally Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968). A Bruton problem arises when multiple defendants are joined for trial and one of the defendants makes an out-of-court confession or other statement that implicates a co-defendant. The statement of the declarant co-defendant, when offered against him by the government, is admissible as non-hearsay, see Fed. R. Evid. 802(d)(2), but is generally inadmissible hearsay as against the non-declarant co-defendant. In a joint trial, the jury will hear the statement of one defendant pointing the finger at another defendant, but if that defendant (the speaker) does not take the stand, then the other co-defendant does not have an opportunity to confront and cross-examine the speaker. Until Bruton was decided, courts handled this problem by instructing the jury to consider the statement against the declarant only, and not the implicated co-defendant. But Bruton declared that this practice placed an unrealistic burden on jurors. 391 U.S. at 128-29. Bruton held that it violates the Sixth Amendment for an out-of-court statement by one defendant that implicates another defendant to be introduced in a joint trial where the speaker does not take the stand and subject himself to cross examination. Id. at 128-29, 136.

But even when there are Bruton problems, severance is not automatic. The Bruton Court spoke of "alternative ways" of using a statement to prove the confessor's guilt without infringing the nonconfessor's confrontation rights. Id. at 133-34. For example, "[t]he Supreme Court has upheld the use of redactions to solve the Bruton problem, although the validity of redaction will depend a great deal on the details." See 1AWright et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 224 (4th ed. 2012).

The key problem with Garcia's Bruton motion is that he does not point to any specific out-of-court statements Jimenez made that implicate him and thus would create a potential Bruton problem. Instead, he says only that "[i]t is anticipated that the government at trial mayoffer into evidence out of court statements of one or more of Mr. Garcia's co-defendants that could implicate Mr. Garcia . . . ." Mot. Memo., Dkt. 226-1, at

13. The government, for its part, says it plans to offer statements that co-defendants made, but it does not offer any specifics either.

The result is that the Court cannot evaluate whether there is a Bruton problem or, if so, whether it could be resolved with redactions. Nor can the Court evaluate the government's argument that any co-defendant statement implicating Garcia would be admissible under the co-conspirator exception to the hearsay rule, and, therefore, would not create a Bruton problem. See Gov't Response, Dkt. 262, at 12 (citingFed. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(E), United States v. ...

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