I posted earlier today about the Third Circuit’s habeas corpus affirmance in Staruh v. Superintendent. (And the losing attorney just posted a comment.) I can’t help posting some further thoughts, which assume familiarity with my prior post.
The opinion says that the declarant-against-penal-interest’s “failure to testify is extremely probative of the truthfulness of her statements.” In other words, the fact that she wasn’t willing to repeat her confessions under oath is extremely strong reason to think the confessions were false: she wouldn’t put her money where her mouth was.
That sounds reasonable enough at first blush, but I think it doesn’t survive scrutiny.
Consider. The defendant had asserted that the grandmom confessed her own guilt, and the defendant wanted the grandmom to repeat that confession in court. Assuming grandmom wasn’t eager to face a first-degree murder trial herself, she had 3 options:
- testify that the investigator was lying, she had never confessed, and she was innocent;
- testify that investigator was telling the truth but the confession had been a lie and she was innocent; or
- refuse to testify.
She chose #3. Outside the jury’s presence, she invoked the 5th Amendment right of self-incrimination. That 5th Amendment invocation is what the opinion referred to as her “failure to testify.”
Now, I’m no great 5th Amendment scholar, but if the grandmother believed her confession either (1) never happened, or (2) was false, why on earth would she invoke her right against self-incrimination? (Her out-of-court confessions weren’t under oath, so this even isn’t a situation where she incriminated herself either way, murder or perjury.)
The panel treated her unwillingness to testify as a tacit admission that her confessions were false, but in reality she was perfectly free to disavow the confessions, expressly, just by testifying. The fact that she refused to testify — that, instead, she pled the 5th — is not an extremely strong reason to think the confessions were false. If anything, it’s a pretty good reason to think they were true.
(And all that’s not just a fluky fact of this particular case, but it often will be true in statement-against-penal-interest / right-to-present-a-defense cases — the cases where the court’s “extremely probative” language will forever after be invoked.)
Now, I admit that it’s possible that grandmom was trying to be extremely clever. Maybe she thought she could make a false confession out of court, count on that confession being admitted at mom’s trial and resulting in mom being found not guilty and not resulting in grandmom being tried for murder herself. That’s not impossible, but I think it’s ludicrously unlikely. This isn’t Hollywood, this is grandmom living in a house with “diapers on the floor, kitchen faucets that did not work, a sink overflowing with dirty dishes, and toilets that were used without water.” Far-fetched what-ifs like that are no reason to set up a general presumption like the court (arguably) did here.
And the language in today’s opinion risks creating a powerful new reward for prosecutors who succeed in forcing recanting witnesses or confessing alternate perps to invoke the 5th Amendment. Now they don’t just keep those witnesses from taking the stand and looking the factfinder in the eye — they also get to make the witnesses’ out-of-court recantations and confessions disappear in a poof of smoke, too.
Do we really need to create another hurdle for defendants fighting to prove their innocence?