Case Involving An Idea to Kill a State Witness

In Maine v. Moulton, 474 U.S. 159, 88 L. Ed. 2d 481, 106 S. Ct. 477 (1985), the defendant and a co-defendant were indicted with four counts of theft by receiving stolen vehicles and automotive parts. While out on bail, the co-defendant told police that the defendant had suggested to him that they kill a State's witness in the case. Id. at 162. The co-defendant ultimately agreed to wear a body wire to a meeting with the defendant where the two planned to discuss their defensive strategy in the upcoming trial. Id. at 165. Although the idea of eliminating witnesses was briefly mentioned at the beginning of the meeting, the defendant made many incriminating statements about his participation in the charged offenses. Id. at 165-66. Portions of the tape implicating the defendant in the charged offenses were admitted at trial, and the defendant was convicted. The defendant appealed on the ground that the tape's admission violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The state court of appeals reversed the trial court, holding that the State could not use the recordings where the State knew or should have known that the defendant would make incriminating statements as to charges that were pending. Id. at 168. The United States Supreme Court upheld the state appeals court. Discussing the scope of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, the Court stated that the State has "an affirmative obligation not to act in a manner that circumvents and thereby dilutes the protection afforded by the right to counsel." Id. at 171. The Court explained that while the Sixth Amendment is not violated when the government, "by luck or happenstance," obtains incriminating evidence after the right to counsel has attached, but it is violated by "knowing exploitation . . . of an opportunity to confront the accused without counsel." Id. at 176. The Court rejected the State's argument that because there was a legitimate reason for listening to the conversation - investigating a plot to kill a State's witness - the incriminating statements regarding the already-charged crime should therefore not be suppressed. Id. at 178. Because the police knew (or should have known), from previous conversations between the defendant and co-defendant, that their meeting was in part for the purpose of discussing the pending charges and their defense strategy, the defendant's Sixth Amendment rights were violated.