New Trial Based on Forensic Evidence
In Holmes v. South Carolina (2006) 547 U.S. 319, petitioner was convicted of murder and other assaultive and property offenses arising from the 1989 death of one Mary Stewart.
Upon state postconviction review, petitioner was granted a new trial. At the second trial, the prosecution relied heavily on certain forensic evidence, including petitioner's palm print on the interior of the front door of the victim's home, fiber evidence, DNA evidence, and the presence of the victim's and petitioner's blood on the petitioner's tank top.
As a major part of his defense, petitioner attempted to undermine the forensic evidence by suggesting it had been contaminated and that certain law enforcement officers had engaged in a plot to frame him. Petitioner also sought to introduce proof that another man, one Jimmy White, had attacked Stewart. (Holmes, supra, 126 S. Ct. at pp. 1730-1731.)
The trial court excluded the third-party evidence citing State v. Gregory (S.C. 1941) 198 S.C. 98, (Gregory). In that case, the South Carolina Supreme Court held third-party evidence is admissible if it raises a reasonable inference or presumption as to the defendant's own innocence but is inadmissible if it merely casts a bare suspicion upon another or raises a conjectural inference as to the commission of the crime by another. (Holmes, supra, 126 S. Ct. at p. 1731.)
On appeal, the South Carolina Supreme Court found no error in the exclusion of petitioner's third-party evidence of guilt. Citing Gregory and its later decision in State v. Gay (S.C. 2001) 343 S.C. 543, 541 (Gay), the state Supreme Court held that "'where there is strong evidence of an appellant's guilt, especially where there is strong forensic evidence, the proffered evidence about a third party's alleged guilt does not raise a reasonable inference as to the appellant's own innocence.' Applying this standard, the court held that petitioner could not 'overcome the forensic evidence against him to raise a reasonable inference of his own innocence.' " (Holmes, supra, 126 S.Ct. at p. 1731.)
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and vacated the judgment. The Supreme Court held that state and federal lawmakers have broad latitude under the Constitution to establish rules excluding evidence from criminal trials. This latitude has its limits, however. The Constitution guarantees criminal defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense. This right is abridged by rules of evidence that infringe upon a weighty interest of the accused and are arbitrary or disproportionate to the purposes they are designed to serve. (Holmes, supra, 126 S. Ct. at p. 1731.)
The Constitution prohibits the exclusion of defense evidence under rules that serve no legitimate purpose or are disproportionate to the ends they are asserted to promote. On the other hand, well-established rules of evidence permit trial judges to exclude evidence if its probative value is outweighed by certain other factors, such as unfair prejudice, confusion of issues, or potential to mislead the jury. (Holmes, supra, 126 S.Ct. at p. 1732.)
A specific application of this principle is found in rules regulating the admission of evidence proffered by criminal defendants to show that someone else committed the crime with which they are charged. Such evidence may be excluded where it does not sufficiently connect the other person to crime, is speculative or remote, or does not tend to prove or disprove a material fact in issue at the defendant's trial. Such rules are widely accepted and petitioner did not challenge them in Holmes. In Gregory, supra, 16 S.E.2d at pages 534-535, the South Carolina Supreme Court adopted and applied a rule apparently intended to be of this type. In Gay, however, the state Supreme Court radically changed and extended the rule. (Holmes, supra, 126 S. Ct. at pp. 1733-1734.)
In Gay, the state Supreme Court recognized the standard applied in Gregory and then stated that "in view of the strong evidence of appellant's guilt-especially the forensic evidence ... the proffered evidence ... did not raise 'a reasonable inference' as to appellant's own innocence." (Gay, supra, 541 S.E.2d at p. 545.)
After petitioner Holmes's second trial, the state Supreme Court applied the rule 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 (or perhaps must) be excluded. " (Holmes, supra, 126 S. Ct. at p. 1734.)
Under the rule articulated in Gay, the 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. In other words, if the prosecution's case is strong enough, the evidence of third-party guilt is excluded even if that evidence, if viewed independently, would have great probative value and even if it would not pose an undue risk of harassment, prejudice, or confusion of issues. (Holmes, supra, 126 S. Ct. at p. 1734.)
As applied in petitioner Holmes's second trial, the South Carolina Supreme Court's rule called for little, if any, examination of the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses or the reliability of its evidence. The defense strenuously claimed the prosecution's forensic evidence was so unreliable (due to mishandling and a deliberate plot to frame petitioner) that the evidence should not have been admitted.
The state Supreme Court responded that these challenges did not entirely eviscerate the forensic evidence and that the defense challenges went to the weight and not the admissibility of the evidence. In evaluating the prosecution's forensic evidence, the state Supreme Court deemed it to be strong and thereby justified exclusion of petitioner's third-party guilt evidence. In doing so, the state Supreme Court made no mention of defense challenges to the prosecution's evidence. Interpreted in this way, the rule applied by the state Supreme Court did not rationally serve the end that the Gregory rule and its analogues in other jurisdictions were designed to promote, i.e., to focus the trial on the central issues by excluding evidence that has only a very weak logical connection to the central issues. (Holmes, supra, 126 S. Ct. at p. 1734.)
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. Because the rule applied by the state Supreme Court in this case did not heed this point, the United States Supreme Court deemed it "arbitrary" in the sense that it did not rationally serve the end that the Gregory rule and other similar third-party guilt rules were designed to further. (Holmes, supra, 126 S. Ct. at p. 1735.)