Guilt of a Codefendant

I’ve had a couple of questions about the same topic recently, so I thought I’d do a quick blog post about it.

Our appellate courts have made clear that normally, “it is improper to make reference to the disposition of charges against a codefendant.” State v. Campbell, 296 N.C. 394 (1979). See also State v. Brown, 319 N.C. 361 (1987); State v. Jackson, 270 N.C. 773 (1967). This is true whether the codefendant was convicted, which the state sometimes wants to introduce to add momentum to the prosecution of the defendant, State v. Wilson, __ N.C. App. __, 691 S.E.2d 734 (2010), or whether the codefendant was acquitted, which the defendant sometimes wants to introduce to cast doubts on the investigation as a whole, State v. McCullough, 50 N.C. App. 184 (1980). The reason that such evidence is improper is that it is not relevant; each defendant must be tried based only on the admissible evidence in his individual case. State v. Baskin, 190 N.C. App. 102 (2008).

When the codefendant testifies, the analysis is different. “[E]vidence of a testifying codefendant’s guilty plea is admissible if introduced for a legitimate purpose.” State v. Rothwell, 308 N.C. 782 (1983). For example, if the defendant suggests that the codefendant received lenient treatment in exchange for his testimony, the details of the codefendant’s plea may be admitted to rebut the suggestion. State v. Potter, 295 N.C. 126 (1978). And when the codefendant’s testimony “amount[s] to a detailed and unequivocal admission of his guilt,” our supreme court has indicated that it is “unable to perceive how a statement of his intention to confirm this sworn, public confession by a subsequent plea of guilty could be prejudicial error.” State v. Cameron, 284 N.C. 165 (1973).