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  • Writer's pictureBennett Nuss

Samia v. United States: 2022-23 Supreme Court Criminal Decisions

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Samia v. United States was decided on June 23, 2023. According to the facts of the case, in 2012, Paul LeRoux tasked petitioner Adam Samia and co-defendants Joseph Hunter and Carl Stillwell to carry out the murder of Catherine Lee. Later that year, the DEA arrested LeRoux, who then became a cooperating witness for the Government. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Samia and co-defendants in connection to the murder-for-hire sometime later. Samia became a cooperating witness against his co-defendants, Hunter and Stillwell, who worked for a local organized crime syndicate run by LeRoux.

During a search of Samia’s domicile, law enforcement found the key to the van in which Lee had been murdered, as well as pictures of her home. During Stillwell’s arrest, law enforcement recovered a cell phone containing photographs of Lee’s dead body. In a post-arrest interview, Stillwell opted to waive his Miranda rights and confessed that he had driven the van in which Lee was killed, but it was Samia who shot her.

Samia and Stillwell were charged with murder for hire; causing death with a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence; conspiracy to commit murder for hire; conspiracy to murder and kidnap in a foreign country; and conspiracy to launder money. Hunter received the same charges, excluding the conspiracy to launder money. While Stillwell and Hunter admitted that they had participated in the murder, Samia maintained his innocence.

In pre-trial litigation, the Government moved to admit Stillwell’s confession into evidence that inculpated Samia, but Stillwell refused to testify at trial. To avoid a Confrontation Clause challenge, the Government proposed to have an agent testify to the content of Stillwell’s confession in a way that did not materially change the fact pattern but also did not expressly name Samia.

Samia was convicted on all counts and sentenced to life imprisonment plus 10 years. Samia appealed to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the admission of Stillwell’s confession via an agent was constitutional error, because surrounding testimony left no question that the ‘other person’ the agent was referring to was Samia, thus causing a Confrontation Clause violation. The 2nd Circuit ruled against Samia, stating that the admission was constitutionally sufficient. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether Samia’s rights were violated under the Confrontation Clause by the admission of Stillwell’s altered confession, subject to a limiting instruction.

Justice Thomas wrote the opinion of the Court, joined in full by Chief Justice Roberts, as well as Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and in part by Justice Barrett. According to Justice Thomas, there has been a long historical precedent in the United States in permitting the confessions of a non-testifying co-defendant, only so long as the jury has been properly instructed to not consider the testimony against the non-confessing defendant.

Accordingly, the test applied by the Court permits the use of a confession without implicating a Confrontation Clause violation if the name of the non-confessing defendant is excluded from the testimony and a limiting instruction is presented to the jury. Thomas reasoned that, according to this historical test, the use of Samia’s testimony is a non-controversial case of using a non-testifying co-defendant’s confession, as it was factually analogous to previous cases in which the Court found no Confrontation Clause violations.

Justice Barrett, concurring in part and concurring with the judgment, briefly stated that Justice Thomas’s overreliance on specific historical instances which are not exactly analogous to the case at hand can weaken those precedents in the future.

Justice Kagan authored a dissent in this case, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Jackson. Justice Kagan argues that the use of a non-testifying co-defendant’s confession in any fashion would prima facie result in a Confrontation Clause violation because the body of evidence could only cause the jury to infer that the supposedly non-indicative testimony from the government agent is referring to the non-confessing defendant. To Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, and Jackson, the use of such testimony is facially invasive of defendant’s rights in these specific instances and thus the precedent should be overturned.

For the average criminal defendant or their counsel, the actual impact of this case is likely to be minimal as it is a mere reassertion of pre-existing doctrine. However, one can only wonder if prosecutors will adopt a strategy of using non-testifying co-defendant confessions on a more regular basis due to the express endorsement of their use by a majority of the Court in this case.


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