Williamson v. United States, 512 U.S. 594 (1994)

Author: Justice O'Connor

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Williamson v. United States, 512 U.S. 594 (1994)

JUSTICE O’CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II-C.

In this case, we clarify the scope of the hearsay exception for statements against penal interest. Fed.Rule Evid. 804(b)(3).


A deputy sheriff stopped the rental car driven by Reginald Harris for weaving on the highway. Harris consented to a search of the car, which revealed 19 kilograms of cocaine in two suitcases in the trunk. Harris was promptly arrested.

Shortly after Harris’ arrest, Special Agent Donald Walton of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) interviewed him by telephone. During that conversation, Harris said that he got the cocaine from an unidentified Cuban in Fort Lauderdale; that the cocaine belonged to petitioner Williamson; and that it was to be delivered that night to a particular dumpster. Williamson was also connected to Harris by physical evidence: the luggage bore the initials of Williamson’s sister, Williamson was listed as an additional driver on the car rental agreement, and an envelope addressed to Williamson and a receipt with Williamson’s girlfriend’s address were found in the glove compartment.

Several hours later, Agent Walton spoke to Harris in person. During that interview, Harris said he had rented the car a few days earlier and had driven it to Fort Lauderdale to meet Williamson. According to Harris, he had gotten the cocaine from a Cuban who was Williamson’s acquaintance, and the Cuban had put the cocaine in the car with a note telling Harris how to deliver the drugs. Harris repeated that he had been instructed to leave the drugs in a certain dumpster, to return to his car, and to leave without waiting for anyone to pick up the drugs.

Agent Walton then took steps to arrange a controlled delivery of the cocaine. But as Walton was preparing to leave the interview room, Harris

got out of [his] chair . . . and . . . took a half step toward [Walton] . . . and . . . said, . . . "I can’t let you do that," threw his hands up and said "that’s not true, I can’t let you go up there for no reason."

App. 40. Harris told Walton he had lied about the Cuban, the note, and the dumpster. The real story, Harris said, was that he was transporting the cocaine to Atlanta for Williamson, and that Williamson was traveling in front of him in another rental car. Harris added that, after his car was stopped, Williamson turned around and drove past the location of the stop, where he could see Harris’ car with its trunk open. Ibid. Because Williamson had apparently seen the police searching the car, Harris explained that it would be impossible to make a controlled delivery. Id. at 41.

Harris told Walton that he had lied about the source of the drugs because he was afraid of Williamson. Id. at 61, 68; see also id. at 30-31. Though Harris freely implicated himself, he did not want his story to be recorded, and he refused to sign a written version of the statement. Id. at 24-25. Walton testified that he had promised to report any cooperation by Harris to the Assistant United States Attorney. Walton said Harris was not promised any reward or other benefit for cooperating. Id. at 25-26.

Williamson was eventually convicted of possessing cocaine with intent to distribute, conspiring to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, and traveling interstate to promote the distribution of cocaine, 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 846; 18 U.S.C. § 1952. When called to testify at Williamson’s trial, Harris refused, even though the prosecution gave him use immunity and the court ordered him to testify and eventually held him in contempt. The District Court then ruled that, under Rule 804(b)(3), Agent Walton could relate what Harris had said to him:

The ruling of the Court is that the statements . . . are admissible under [Rule 804(b)(3)], which deals with statements against interest.

First, defendant Harris’ statements clearly implicated himself, and therefore, are against his penal interest.

Second, defendant Harris, the declarant, is unavailable.

And third, as I found yesterday, there are sufficient corroborating circumstances in this case to ensure the trustworthiness of his testimony. Therefore, under [United States v. Harrell, 788 F.2d 1524 (CA11 1986)], these statements by defendant Harris implicating [Williamson] are admissible.

App. 51-52.

Williamson appealed his conviction, claiming that the admission of Harris’ statements violated Rule 804(b)(3) and the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed without opinion, judgt. order reported at 981 F.2d 1262 (1992), and we granted certiorari. 510 U.S. 1039 (1994).



The hearsay rule, Fed.Rule Evid. 802, is premised on the theory that out-of-court statements are subject to particular hazards. The declarant might be lying; he might have misperceived the events which he relates; he might have faulty memory; his words might be misunderstood or taken out of context by the listener. And the ways in which these dangers are minimized for in-court statements -- the oath, the witness’ awareness of the gravity of the proceedings, the jury’s ability to observe the witness’ demeanor, and, most importantly, the right of the opponent to cross-examine -- are generally absent for things said out of court.

Nonetheless, the Federal Rules of Evidence also recognize that some kinds of out-of-court statements are less subject to these hearsay dangers, and therefore except them from the general rule that hearsay is inadmissible. One such category covers statements that are against the declarant’s interest:

statement[s] which . . . at the time of [their] making . . . so far tended to subject the declarant to . . . criminal liability . . . that a reasonable person in the declarant’s position would not have made the statement[s] unless believing [them] to be true.

Fed. Rule Evid. 804(b)(3).

To decide whether Harris’ confession is made admissible by Rule 804(b)(3), we must first determine what the Rule means by "statement," which Federal Rule of Evidence 801(a)(1) defines as "an oral or written assertion." One possible meaning, "a report or narrative," Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 2229, defn. 2(a) (1961), connotes an extended declaration. Under this reading, Harris’ entire confession -- even if it contains both self-inculpatory and non-self-inculpatory parts -- would be admissible so long as in the aggregate the confession sufficiently inculpates him. Another meaning of "statement," "a single declaration or remark," ibid. defn. 2(b), would make Rule 804(b)(3) cover only those declarations or remarks within the confession that are individually self-inculpatory. See also id. at 131 (defining "assertion" as a "declaration"); id. at 586 (defining "declaration" as a "statement").

Although the text of the Rule does not directly resolve the matter, the principle behind the Rule, so far as it is discernible from the text, points clearly to the narrower reading. Rule 804(b)(3) is founded on the common sense notion that reasonable people, even reasonable people who are not especially honest, tend not to make self-inculpatory statements unless they believe them to be true. This notion simply does not extend to the broader definition of "statement." The fact that a person is making a broadly self-inculpatory confession does not make more credible the confession’s non-self-inculpatory parts. One of the most effective ways to lie is to mix falsehood with truth, especially truth that seems particularly persuasive because of its self-inculpatory nature.

In this respect, it is telling that the non-self-inculpatory things Harris said in his first statement actually proved to be false, as Harris himself admitted during the second interrogation. And when part of the confession is actually self-exculpatory, the generalization on which Rule 804(b)(3) is founded becomes even less applicable. Self-exculpatory statements are exactly the ones which people are most likely to make even when they are false; and mere proximity to other, self-inculpatory, statements does not increase the plausibility of the self-exculpatory statements.

We therefore cannot agree with JUSTICE KENNEDY’s suggestion that the Rule can be read as expressing a policy that collateral statements -- even ones that are not in any way against the declarant’s interest -- are admissible, post at 614. Nothing in the text of Rule 804(b)(3) or the general theory of the hearsay Rules suggests that admissibility should turn on whether a statement is collateral to a self-inculpatory statement. The fact that a statement is self-inculpatory does make it more reliable; but the fact that a statement is collateral to a self-inculpatory statement says nothing at all about the collateral statement’s reliability. We see no reason why collateral statements, even ones that are neutral as to interest, post at 617-619, should be treated any differently from other hearsay statements that are generally excluded.

Congress certainly could, subject to the constraints of the Confrontation Clause, make statements admissible based on their proximity to self-inculpatory statements. But we will not lightly assume that the ambiguous language means anything so inconsistent with the Rule’s underlying theory. See Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp., 496 U.S. 384, 394-395, 408-409 (1990). In our view, the most faithful reading of Rule 804(b)(3) is that it does not allow admission of non-self-inculpatory statements, even if they are made within a broader narrative that is generally self-inculpatory. The district court may not just assume for purposes of Rule 804(b)(3) that a statement is self-inculpatory because it is part of a fuller confession, and this is especially true when the statement implicates someone else.

[T]he arrest statements of a codefendant have traditionally been viewed with special suspicion. Due to his strong motivation to implicate the defendant and to exonerate himself, a codefendant’s statements about what the defendant said or did are less credible than ordinary hearsay evidence.

Lee v. Illinois, 476 U.S. 530, 541 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 136 (1968); Dutton v. Evans, 400 U.S. 74, 98 (1970) (Harlan, J., concurring in result).

JUSTICE KENNEDY suggests that the Advisory Committee Notes to Rule 804(b)(3) should be read as endorsing the position we reject -- that an entire narrative, including non-self-inculpatory parts (but excluding the clearly self-serving parts, post at 620), may be admissible if it is in the aggregate self-inculpatory. See post at 614-615. The Notes read, in relevant part:

[T]he third-party confession . . . may include statements implicating [the accused], and, under the general theory of declarations against interest, they would be admissible as related statements. . . . [Douglas v. Alabama, 380 U.S. 415 (1965), and Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968)] . . . by no means require that all statements implicating another person be excluded from the category of declarations against interest. Whether a statement is in fact against interest must be determined from the circumstances of each case. Thus, a statement admitting guilt and implicating another person, made while in custody, may well be motivated by a desire to curry favor with the authorities, and hence fail to qualify as against interest. . . . On the other hand, the same words spoken under different circumstances, e.g., to an acquaintance, would have no difficulty in qualifying. . . . The balancing of self-serving against dissenting [sic] aspects of a declaration is discussed in McCormick § 256.

28 U.S.C.App., p. 790. This language, however, is not particularly clear, and some of it -- especially the Advisory Committee’s endorsement of the position taken by Dean McCormick’s treatise -- points the other way:

A certain latitude as to contextual statements, neutral as to interest, giving meaning to the declaration against interest seems defensible, but bringing in self-serving statements contextually seems questionable. . . . [A]dmit[ting] the disserving parts of the declaration, and exclud[ing] the self-serving parts . . . seems the most realistic method of adjusting admissibility to trustworthiness, where the serving and disserving parts can be severed.

See C. McCormick, Law of Evidence § 256, pp. 551-553 (1954) (footnotes omitted). Without deciding exactly how much weight to give the Notes in this particular situation, compare Schiavone v. Fortune, 477 U.S. 21, 31 (1986) (Notes are to be given some weight), with Green v. Bock Laundry Machine Co., 490 U.S. 504, 528 (1989) (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment) (Notes ought to be given no weight), we conclude that the policy expressed in the statutory text points clearly enough in one direction that it outweighs whatever force the Notes may have. And though JUSTICE KENNEDY believes that the text can fairly be read as expressing a policy of admitting collateral statements, post at 614, for the reasons given above, we disagree.


We also do not share JUSTICE KENNEDY’s fears that our reading of the Rule "eviscerate[s] the against penal interest exception," post at 616 (internal quotation marks omitted), or makes it lack "meaningful effect," ibid. There are many circumstances in which Rule 804(b)(3) does allow the admission of statements that inculpate a criminal defendant. Even the confessions of arrested accomplices may be admissible if they are truly self-inculpatory, rather than merely attempts to shift blame or curry favor.

For instance, a declarant’s squarely self-inculpatory confession -- "yes, I killed X" -- will likely be admissible under Rule 804(b)(3) against accomplices of his who are being tried under a coconspirator liability theory. See Pinkerton v. United States, 328 U.S. 640, 647 (1946). Likewise, by showing that the declarant knew something, a self-inculpatory statement can, in some situations, help the jury infer that his confederates knew it as well. And when seen with other evidence, an accomplice’s self-inculpatory statement can inculpate the defendant directly: "I was robbing the bank on Friday morning," coupled with someone’s testimony that the declarant and the defendant drove off together Friday morning, is evidence that the defendant also participated in the robbery.

Moreover, whether a statement is self-inculpatory or not can only be determined by viewing it in context. Even statements that are, on their face, neutral may actually be against the declarant’s interest. "I hid the gun in Joe’s apartment" may not be a confession of a crime; but if it is likely to help the police find the murder weapon, then it is certainly self-inculpatory. "Sam and I went to Joe’s house" might be against the declarant’s interest if a reasonable person in the declarant’s shoes would realize that being linked to Joe and Sam would implicate the declarant in Joe and Sam’s conspiracy. And other statements that give the police significant details about the crime may also, depending on the situation, be against the declarant’s interest. The question under Rule 804(b)(3) is always whether the statement was sufficiently against the declarant’s penal interest "that a reasonable person in the declarant’s position would not have made the statement unless believing it to be true," and this question can only be answered in light of all the surrounding circumstances.*


In this case, however, we cannot conclude that all that Harris said was properly admitted. Some of Harris’ confession would clearly have been admissible under Rule 804(b)(3); for instance, when he said he knew there was cocaine in the suitcase, he essentially forfeited his only possible defense to a charge of cocaine possession, lack of knowledge. But other parts of his confession, especially the parts that implicated Williamson, did little to subject Harris himself to criminal liability. A reasonable person in Harris’ position might even think that implicating someone else would decrease his practical exposure to criminal liability at least so far as sentencing goes. Small fish in a big conspiracy often get shorter sentences than people who are running the whole show, see, e.g., United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual § 3B1.2 (Nov. 1993), especially if the small fish are willing to help the authorities catch the big ones, see, e.g., id. at § 5K1.1.

Nothing in the record shows that the District Court or the Court of Appeals inquired whether each of the statements in Harris’ confession was truly self-inculpatory. As we explained above, this can be a fact-intensive inquiry, which would require careful examination of all the circumstances surrounding the criminal activity involved; we therefore remand to the Court of Appeals to conduct this inquiry in the first instance.

In light of this disposition, we need not address Williamson’s claim that that the statements were also made inadmissible by the Confrontation Clause, see generally White v. Illinois, 502 U.S. 346 (1992), and in particular we need not decide whether the hearsay exception for declarations against interest is "firmly rooted" for Confrontation Clause purposes. Compare, e.g., United States v. Seeley, 892 F.2d 1, 2 (CA1 1989) (holding that the exception is firmly rooted), with United States v. Flores, 985 F.2d 770 (CA5 1993) (holding the contrary). We note, however, that the very fact that a statement is genuinely self-inculpatory -- which our reading of Rule 804(b)(3) requires -- is itself one of the "particularized guarantees of trustworthiness" that makes a statement admissible under the Confrontation Clause. See Lee v. Illinois, 476 U.S. 530, 543-545 (1986). We also need not decide whether, as some Courts of Appeals have held, the second sentence of Rule 804(b)(3) -- "A statement tending to expose the declarant to criminal liability and offered to exculpate the accused is not admissible unless corroborating circumstances clearly indicate the trustworthiness of the statement" (emphasis added) -- also requires that statements inculpating the accused be supported by corroborating circumstances. See, e.g., United States v. Alvarez, 584 F.2d 694, 701 (CA5 1978); United States v. Taggart, 944 F.2d 837, 840 (CA11 1991). The judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

So ordered.

* Of course, an accomplice’s statements may also be admissible under other provisions of Rules 801-804. For instance, statements made in furtherance of the conspiracy may be admissible under Rule 801(d)(2)(E), and other statements that bear circumstantial guarantees of trustworthiness may be admissible under Rule 804(b)(5), the catch-all hearsay exception.


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Chicago: O'Connor, "O’connor, J., Lead Opinion," Williamson v. United States, 512 U.S. 594 (1994) in 512 U.S. 594 512 U.S. 597–512 U.S. 605. Original Sources, accessed April 25, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CQBC3A8XG13PHXB.

MLA: O'Connor. "O’connor, J., Lead Opinion." Williamson v. United States, 512 U.S. 594 (1994), in 512 U.S. 594, pp. 512 U.S. 597–512 U.S. 605. Original Sources. 25 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CQBC3A8XG13PHXB.

Harvard: O'Connor, 'O’connor, J., Lead Opinion' in Williamson v. United States, 512 U.S. 594 (1994). cited in 1994, 512 U.S. 594, pp.512 U.S. 597–512 U.S. 605. Original Sources, retrieved 25 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CQBC3A8XG13PHXB.