Zafiro v. United States
Annotate this Case
506 U.S. 534 (1993)
OCTOBER TERM, 1992
ZAFIRO ET AL. v. UNITED STATES
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT
No. 91-6824. Argued November 2, 1992-Decided January 25,1993
Petitioners were indicted on federal drug charges and brought to trial together pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure S(b), which provides that defendants may be charged together "if they are alleged to have participated ... in the same series of acts or transactions constituting ... offenses." At various points during the proceeding, they each argued that their defenses were mutually antagonistic and moved for severance under Rule 14, which specifies that, "[i]f it appears that a defendant or the government is prejudiced by a joinder of ... defendants ... for trial ... , the court may order an election or separate trials of counts, grant a severance of defendants or provide whatever relief justice requires." The District Court denied the motions, and each petitioner was convicted of various offenses. Although acknowledging other lower court cases saying that a severance is required when defendants present "mutually antagonistic defenses," the Court of Appeals found that petitioners had not suffered prejudice and affirmed the denial of severance.
Held: Rule 14 does not require severance as a matter of law when codefendants present "mutually exclusive defenses." While the Rule recognizes that joinder, even when proper under Rule S(b), may prejudice either a defendant or the Government, it does not make mutually exclusive defenses prejudicial per se or require severance whenever prejudice is shown. Rather, severance should be granted only if there is a serious risk that a joint trial would compromise a specific trial right of a properly joined defendant or prevent the jury from making a reliable judgment about guilt or innocence. The risk of prejudice will vary with the facts in each case, and the Rule leaves determination of the risk, and the tailoring of any necessary remedy, to the sound discretion of the district courts. Although separate trials will more likely be necessary when the risk is high, less drastic measures, such as limiting instructions, often will suffice. Because petitioners, who rely on an insupportable bright-line rule, have not shown that their joint trial subjected them to any legally cognizable prejudice, the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying their motions to sever. Moreover, even if there were some risk of prejudice, here it is of the type that can
be cured with proper instructions, which the District Court gave. Pp. 537-541.
945 F.2d 881, affirmed.
O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 541.
Kenneth L. Cunniff, by appointment of the Court, 504 U. S. 906, argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioners.
John F. Manning argued the cause for the United States.
With him on the brief were Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Mueller, Deputy Solicitor General Bryson, and Kristina L. Ament.
JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court. Rule S(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that defendants may be charged together "if they are alleged to have participated in the same act or transaction or in the same series of acts or transactions constituting an offense or offenses." Rule 14 of the Rules, in turn, permits a district court to grant a severance of defendants if "it appears that a defendant or the government is prejudiced by a joinder." In this case, we consider whether Rule 14 requires severance as a matter of law when codefendants present "mutually antagonistic defenses."
Gloria Zafiro, Jose Martinez, Salvador Garcia, and Alfonso Soto were accused of distributing illegal drugs in the Chicago area, operating primarily out of Soto's bungalow in Chicago and Zaftro's apartment in Cicero, a nearby suburb. One day, Government agents observed Garcia and Soto place a large box in Soto's car and drive from Soto's bungalow to Zaftro's apartment. The agents followed the two as they carried the box up the stairs. When the agents identified
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