On May 1, 2006, the Supreme Court issued Justice Alito's first opinion, Holmes v. South Carolina, which surprised many Court observers because it vacated a murder conviction based on exclusion of defense evidence of third-party guilt.
The Court held that this exclusion denied Holmes a "meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense."
Bobby Lee Holmes was convicted of first degree murder for the beating, rape and robbery of an 86 year-old woman and sentenced to death. The prosecution submitted substantial forensic evidence relating Holmes to the scene of the crime, including palm prints, DNA and fibers from his clothing.
The major focus of Holmes' defense was to undermine the forensic evidence by suggesting that it had been contaminated and that law enforcement officers had attempted to frame him. Holmes also sought to introduce proof, through witnesses who had seen White in the vicinity and witnesses to whom White had confessed, that another man — Jimmy McCaw White — had attacked the victim.
The trial court excluded Holmes' third-party guilt evidence based on the South Carolina Supreme Court's decision in State v. Gregory, which held that such evidence was admissible only if it raised a "reasonable inference or presumption" of the defendant's innocence, but was not admissible merely to cast suspicion upon a third-party.
The trial court held that Holmes could not "overcome the forensic evidence against him to raise a reasonable inference of his own innocence," relying on a later South Carolina Supreme Court decision, State v. Gay.
In this case, the trial court applied the rule in Gay that "where there is strong evidence of [a defendant's] guilt, especially where there is strong forensic evidence, the proffered evidence about a third party's alleged guilt" may be excluded.
The court explained that state and federal lawmakers have wide latitude to establish rules excluding evidence from criminal trials, but that there are constitutional limits based on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the Compulsory Process or Confrontation clauses of the Sixth Amendment.
Trial judges may exclude evidence if its probative value is outweighed by factors such as unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues or potential to mislead the jury or if it is repetitive or marginally relevant. However, evidence rules that infringe upon a substantial interest of a defendant and are deemed arbitrary and out of proportion to the interest they are designed to serve are not permitted.
Rules regulating evidence that a third-party has committed the crime with which the defendant has been charged have been upheld by the Court when the evidence is remote and does not connect the other person with the crime involved. However, "the Constitution . . . prohibits the exclusion of defense evidence under rules that serve no legitimate purpose or that are disproportionate to the ends that they are asserted to promote."
Justice Alito determined that under the rule applied by the South Carolina court:
[T]he trial judge does not focus on the probative value or the potential adverse effects of admitting the defense evidence of third-party guilt. Instead, the critical inquiry concerns the strength of the prosecution's case.
As a result, the South Carolina court did not examine the connection between the proffered evidence of third-party guilt and the crime committed, focusing instead only on the strength of the prosecution's case. Indeed, the South Carolina rule did not promote the ends that other jurisdictions sought to reach by excluding third-party guilt evidence: that is, the exclusion of evidence with a weak logical connection to the central issues in the trial.
Moreover, in this case, the trial court looked only at the prosecution's case — it did not even consider defenses to the prosecution's evidence in making its determination to exclude the evidence of third-party guilt.
In sum, Justice Alito found the South Carolina rule "arbitrary" because "by evaluating the strength of only one party's evidence, no logical conclusion can be reached regarding the strength of contrary evidence offered by the other side to rebut or cast doubt." Moreover, the South Carolina rule did not "rationally" serve the end that other third-party guilt rules were designed to further.
Bennette Deacy Kramer is a partner at Schlam Stone & Dolan.
[This article is reprinted with permission from the June/July/August 2006 issue of the Federal Bar Council News. Copyright © 2006 Federal Bar Council. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.]