High Court Limits Use of Out-of-Court Statements

June 11, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON, DC — The Supreme Court yesterday limited the use of out-of-court statements as evidence in criminal trials, USA Today reported.

In a divided ruling that revived a Virginia death row inmate’s challenge of his conviction, the justices made it harder for prosecutors to use as evidence the earlier confession of an alleged accomplice who admitted some wrongdoing but pinned the primary blame on the defendant, the paper said.

The ruling in the closely watched case ordered a lower court to re-examine the conviction of Benjamin Lee Lilly, convicted of the 1995 shooting death of Alexander DeFilippis at a rural convenience store near Heathwood, Va.

In the court’s main opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said the admission of an alleged accomplice’s confession during Lilly’s trial violated his constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him.

Mark Lilly’s confession could not be considered “sufficiently reliable as to be admissible without allowing (Lilly) to cross-examine him,” Stevens wrote according to a transcript that was made available by the Law News Network. The witness “had a natural motive to attempt to exculpate himself as much as possible,” Stevens said.

All nine justices voted to reverse the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision that upheld Lilly’s conviction. The justices also ordered a lower court to determine whether the error could be considered harmless.

Kent Willis, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Lilly’s appeal that was cited in the majority opinion, was pleased with the decision.

“The Supreme Court is simply re-embracing one of the fundamental principles of criminal justice, and that is the right to face your accuser,” he told the Law News Network.

Prosecutors said Lilly shot DeFilippis during a carjacking. At Lilly’s trial, co-defendant Gary Wayne Barker testified against him and said Lilly fired the fatal shots.

According to USA Today, Lilly’s brother, Mark, also was charged in connection with the carjacking. He refused to testify based on his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, but prosecutors were allowed to tell jurors about Mark Lilly’s confession to police.

In it, he admitted to certain crimes but said he had “nothing to do with the shooting,” which he blamed on his brother.

The Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to confront all witnesses against them, and Lilly’s lawyers said the use of his brother’s confession violated that right since Mark Lilly was unavailable for cross-examination.

The nation’s highest court overruled the Virginia Supreme Court decision that said the confession could be used. According to USA Today, Stevens wrote that appellate courts need not defer to lower courts’ findings that an out-of-court statement should be considered reliable enough that it can be admitted in court.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers joined the ACLU in submitting the friend-of-the-court briefs. The case is Lilly v. Virginia, 98-5881.

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