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December 14, 2022

SCOTUS grants cert review on two more criminal cases

Yesterday the US Supreme court issued this new order list to continue to fill out its relatively fallow docket. Two of the three new cases the Supreme Court has decided to take up are criminal matters, and this SCOTUSblog post provides these details:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday morning added three new cases to its merits docket for the 2022-23 term.  The justices considered all three cases – involving federal securities laws, the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause, and the proper remedy when a defendant is tried in the wrong place – at their private conference last week.  Although the justices announced an initial set of new grants from that conference on Friday afternoon, Tuesday’s grants follow a recent pattern of issuing a second set of grants from the court’s final regularly scheduled conference of the year.

The justices agreed to review the case of Adam Samia – whom the federal government describes as a “hitman” who “committed an array of crimes worthy of a James Bond villain.”  Samia was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the murder of Catherine Lee, a real estate agent in the Philippines.

At Samia’s joint trial with his two co-defendants, prosecutors relied in part on a confession from one of the co-defendants, Carl Stillwell, who identified Samia as the person who pulled the trigger.  Prosecutors redacted Stillwell’s statement so that it did not use Samia’s name, and the presiding judge instructed the jury that it could only consider Stillwell’s statement in determining Stillwell’s guilt.

Samia was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.  He came to the Supreme Court in August, asking the justices to decide whether admitting Stillwell’s redacted statement, when it immediately incriminated Samia, violated Samia’s right under the Sixth Amendment to confront the witnesses against him.

In Smith v. United States, the justices will take up the case of Timothy Smith, an Alabama software engineer and avid fisherman who was indicted for hacking into the website of Strikelines, a Florida company that identifies and sells the locations of artificial fishing reefs (which fisherman normally do not share).

Smith was tried in the Northern District of Florida, where the company was located; he was convicted on two of the three counts on which he was indicated and sentenced to 18 months in prison and a year of supervised release. Smith argued that he was tried in the wrong place, because he lives in Alabama and the website’s servers were in the Middle District of Florida.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit agreed with Smith that one of the counts on which he had been convicted had been tried in the wrong place. The question that the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to decide involves the remedy for that mistake. Smith contends that he should be acquitted on that count and cannot be retried anywhere, while the federal government counters (and the 11th Circuit ruled) that prosecutors can try him again somewhere else.

Though I am disappointed not to see any notable new sentencing cases, I am still gratified to see that the Court will be grappling with some additional criminal cases that may give us more insights into how some of the newer justices approach this part of the SCOTUS docket.

December 14, 2022 at 10:33 AM | Permalink


Samia may be the big criminal case of the term (at least based on what has been granted so far as it relates to state practice). While I know that federal courts are more prone to have joint trials of codefendants, joint trials are possible in many states. Bruton is a big disincentive to joint trials as prosecutors must decide whether to forego using any of the defendants statements or try to redact them in a way which just incriminates the person who made the statement. More guidance on the standard that should be applied to redactions would be useful.

On Smith, at least in my state, we have decided that venue is neither jurisdictional nor an element of the offense. Thus, at least from the way that we treat venue, an error as to venue is simply one more potential trial error that would permit retrial. If a jurisdiction treats venue as an element that must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, then the double jeopardy argument becomes more compelling but how is the "new" charge in the correct jurisdiction not a different offense for double jeopardy purposes since the defendant was never charged with committing the acts in the right venue.

Posted by: tmm | Dec 14, 2022 1:40:14 PM

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