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Name: People v. Hopson
Case #: S228193
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 07/03/2017

Admission of deceased accomplice’s confession violated defendant’s Sixth Amendment confrontation rights where confession was used for the truth. Hopson was tried on charges that she, along with her boyfriend (Thomas), was responsible for the murder of her housemate (Brown). After Thomas confessed that he assaulted Brown at Hopson’s direction, he committed suicide in jail. At trial, Hopson testified that Thomas killed Brown, and related statements and threats Thomas made to her, which were admitted to show Hopson’s state of mind in assisting him with the coverup. In rebuttal, the prosecution introduced Thomas’s full confession, which cast Hopson as the direct perpetrator of the murder. Hopson was convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances and sentenced to LWOP. She appealed and the Court of Appeal affirmed. The California Supreme Court granted review. Held: Reversed. The Sixth Amendment prohibits the introduction of testimonial statements by a nontestifying witness, unless the witness is available to testify, and the defendant had a prior opportunity for cross-examination. (Crawford v. Washington (2004) 541 U.S. 36.) However, this rule does not bar admission of testimonial statements for nonhearsay purposes. Here, the issue was whether Thomas’s confession was used for a permissible nonhearsay purpose or for the truth. Although the confession was purportedly introduced to impeach Hopson’s testimony about the statements Thomas made to her, the jury was not informed of this limited purpose and the prosecution did not use it that way. Instead, the prosecution relied on the confession to establish a different account of events and expressly and repeatedly invited the jury to consider the confession for its truth, arguing in closing that Thomas’s version was true and Hopson’s version was false. Because it was clear Thomas’s confession was used for its truth, and Hopson had no opportunity for cross-examination, Hopson’s confrontation right was violated. The court distinguished Tennessee v. Street (1985) 471 U.S. 409.

Defendant’s testimony did not “open the door” to admission of accomplice’s full confession for its truth. The Attorney General argued that even if Thomas’s confession was used for its truth, Hopson had “opened the door” by testifying about what Thomas said to her; these statements implicated only Thomas and left the false impression that those were the only statements he made about the crime. The court disagreed. Even if Hopson’s testimony left this impression (which it did not), the admission of Thomas’s full confession went well beyond the scope of what would have been necessary to dispel it. Furthermore, the prosecution could have objected to Hopson’s testimony or asked for a limiting instruction instead of waiting until her direct examination was over and introducing the full confession in rebuttal. The court declined to recognize an opening the door exception to the confrontation right or to decide the scope of such an exception, and held only that, in this case, Hopson’s testimony did not give the prosecution carte blanche to introduce her accomplice’s full, unconfronted extrajudicial confession for its truth. The court reversed and remanded for determination of whether the violation of Hopson’s rights was harmless.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: